Many mainstream political analysts, not to mention gleeful conservatives and jumpy Democratic politicians, have established a general consensus that Barack Obama’s administration is struggling politically and poised for serious losses in the 2010 midterms. The theory goes that Obama and his aides overplayed their hand, misreading public opposition to the Bush-era Republican Party’s incompetent stewardship, especially of the economy, as public support for a swinging of the pendulum away from Reagan-era antigovernment sentiment, when in fact the public remains enormously skeptical of government. The theory postulates that public backlash to Obama’s accumulation of power and so-called exorbitant spending are rapidly depleting any reflexive support the Democrats earned as the non-Bush party, and predicts that the backlash will resurrect the Republican Party and conservatism, ending the Obama era in its infancy. Meanwhle, Obama and his aides, along with a few seasoned Washington hands, say that this theory is wildly overblown, that Obama’s popularity is still strong, and if it’s down, that’s because a) governing is inherently more difficult and less popularity-burnishing than campaigning, and b) the economy is currently struggling but will be better by the time of the midterms, and especially by 2012.
I think both theories have some truth to them, but they miss the underlying dynamics. I do not believe that the public remains as antigovernment, and therefore ideologically conservative, and I don’t think the Reagan Era will become a permanent ideological realignment of American politics, dominating Democratic administrations as well as Republican; I do think we are potentially at the cusp of a new Obama era. But, I think Obama and his aides are far too dismissive of the strong evidence that support for his agenda is dangerously weak, that he is not only fighting against special interests and Congressional inertia but also deep, and broad, public skepticism and fear about Obama’s motivation and ultimate goals in proposing his agenda. In short, I think we have seen the end of the Three Big Truths political dynamic that proved so favorable in the beginning of his administration.
So what’s going wrong, and how can it be fixed? We can start with the historical reality that Presidences rise and fall on changes in the unemployment rate: when people feel the climate for getting and keeping a job is improving, they will tend to vote for the incumbent party, but when job prospects are darkening, stagnating, and they fear for the future, then they vote against the incumbent. This is obviously not the only factor – wars, terrorist attacks, major racial and cultural disturbances can also have a major impact – but it is the most consistently critical one in determining the success or failure of a Presidency, and especially of a President’s domestic agenda. A fascinating poll cited by Ezra Klein is very enlightening: one finding is that that the vast majority of Americans feel personally affected by the recession. Either they personally or someone close to them has lost his job or seen hours and wages cut. Obama can NOT overlook the centrality of the breadth and depth of this recession, and especially its effect on the job market, exacerbating the already fragile sense of security in this era’s radically unstable and unequal economy.
A second finding in the poll is even more important. By overwhelming margins, people feel that government action has done a great deal to help banks, well-connected industries, and the rich, and done little to nothing to help small businesses, homeowners, and ordinary people in general. This is the key fact: people aren’t ideologically opposed to the government’s response to the recession; they are opposed to a government that is rewarding the powerful, bad actors, and ignoring or penalizing ordinary folks who played by the rules. They already lacked faith in government for a number of reasons, but this crisis has not restored support for government action against the private sector, contrary to the predictions of the Strike and I. We thought this recession would create a class-conscious ideological divide that would favor liberals: between big business and their collaborators in the Republican Party on the one hand, and ordinary people and their defenders in the Democratic Party on the other. Instead we’ve seen a moralistic populist divide that is dangerous to Democrats and especially the rational expertise-driven brand of liberalism Barack Obama has enacted. This divide pits the whole group of institutions and groups blamed for the crisis – corrupt free-spending politicians of both parties who looked out for the well-connected special interest groups, not only banks but also government employees, unions and racial minorities – against the hard-working average Joes who pay their taxes and their mortgages and their “common-sense” defenders. We thought the Rick Santelli types who blamed “losers” for their misfortune would discredit conservatism, but instead there has been a decided lack of empathy or solidarity, very little evidence of any sense of “we’re all in this together”. That is a fundamental problem – without those feelings, and the antigovernment, “this is all about personal responsibility” worldview will prevail and a liberal agenda is a lost cause.
But even if crucial swing voters in middle are not fundamentally anti-government, and are now expressing their revulsion at government of, by, and for the elite and undeserving, there is little sense that Obama and the Democrats have any plans at changing this perception of government action. Even if Obama passes health care, most of the provisions won’t go into effect until 2013, and even then, many of the changes will prevent things from getting worse, or make the health care system more tolerable and manageable. They are crucially important, but the average person may me moderately pleased that their bills are a little lower, but most likely will not feel a major impact on their lives. In the absence of some extraordinarily effective salesmanship, health care reform may not mean a significant shift in the crucial poll question of who is government helping. This holds even more true for climate change, which will mean some short-term sacrifices for the sake of averting catastrophe and transitioning our economy, but those positive effects will not be felt for a long while, and possibly not ever, but the short-term sacrifices will be relentlessly exposed by opponents, further solidifying the perception that the government is not looking out for ordinary people and their everyday concerns.
The answer must be a change in policy substance and a change in political style. Substantively, Obama and his advisers need to recognize the primacy of those two poll questions – he has to turn them around, or his agenda will wither. To put it simply, he needs to focus on jobs. He needs to improve economic security and opportunity, and he needs to do it rapidly and, frankly, flashily. A big key to Franklin Roosevelt’s political success was the job-creation programs that made it abundantly clear that the government was helping people get jobs. Of course there will be major ideological opposition to such a proposal and it will be mocked by the purveyors of conventional wisdom, but Obama has to read those polls and recognize that people aren’t opposed to all government action, in fact they are dissatisfied that government has not helped them even though they’re struggling. Stop apologizing for government or saying you’re trying to minimize its role in the economy, and instead forcefully advocate for government programs that help ordinary people get jobs and stay in their jobs, increase their wages and job security.
Obama must draw on another lesson from FDR and rethink some of his messaging. People supported FDR’s agenda less because they rationally agreed with the logic of each policy, and far more because they fundamentally trusted FDR – his worldview, his motivation, his ultimate goals. Politicians who have that trust can bring the public in line with all manner of policies that the public might not understand, and might not support if they did understand; and without that trust politicians can’t get people to support policies that people would support if they thoroughly considered them. I think Obama is overconfident that the majority of people trust his worldview, motivation, and ultimate goals. They like him personally, admire him, think he’s smart, competent, and serious about doing a good job. But Obama does not have that public trust – he is so smooth and careful and lacking in passionate emotion that could turn people off in all his media appearances, and that popularity-creating quality was absolutely necessary for the rise of an unknown man of his race, name, and background to rise to such unimaginable heights. However, that very smoothness and lack of passion makes it difficult for people to connect with him, to feel that they “get” him, where he’s coming from, where he’s trying to go. He really needs to explain, in emotional, passionate, real-world terms, the underlying values driving his agenda. As we’ve said before, he needs to study up on Bill Clinton’s brand of “feel your pain” politics, the kind that intuitively senses people’s core hopes and fears and then really speaks to them and wins their trust. This is the way Obama can fix his biggest problem: the widespread belief that his actions are not benefiting ordinary people. But first he needs to recognize that this is a serious, potentially Presidency-killing problem in the first place.