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Memo to America's Middle Class: Obama Is Just Not That Into You

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As we head into the stretch run of the 2010 midterms, and get closer to the halfway point of President Obama's first term, we're hearing a lot of media chatter about the "enthusiasm gap" plaguing Democrats. There is also a lot of talk about whether progressives -- aka "the professional left" -- should or shouldn't be disappointed in Obama. In a post about last month's Netroots Nation gathering in Las Vegas, Matt Yglesias wrote that at this year's event, "the dominant mood" was "depressed" and that he could feel a "considerable degree of ill will toward Barack Obama and his administration."

Those in the "disappointed" camp maintain that Obama presented himself one way to gain their support during the campaign and then, once he had it, ended up governing another way, turning his energies to winning over Republicans instead of changing the game in Washington. As Paul Krugman puts it, "Why does the Obama administration keep looking for love in all the wrong places? Why does it go out of its way to alienate its friends, while wooing people who will never waver in their hatred?"

Those in the "not disappointed" camp claim it's not Obama's fault. He's the same Obama he was during the campaign, they say, and cite a host of logistical and structural reasons for why he had to make all the compromises. Among them: the huge mess left by the Bush administration; the deeper than expected financial crisis; the abuse of the filibuster by Senate Republicans; the intransigence of Blue Dog Democrats; the rise of the Tea Party movement; the right-wing attack machine; a media addicted to the notion of "bipartisanship." The list goes on and on.

The president himself addressed the issue in a speech to labor leaders earlier this month. "I know you are talking to a lot of your locals, I'm sure they are feeling like, 'Boy, change is not happening fast enough'," he said. "They are frustrated. They have every right to be frustrated."

So which side in the "disappointed/not disappointed" debate is right? And what accounts for this friction?

Well, after two years of seeing a pattern being established, I think I have the answer. Progressives, for your own good, it's my duty to point something out to you: the president's just not that into you.

Sure, there's no doubting the impact of all the Washington realities listed above that have made Obama's first term a huge challenge. The GOP really has become obstructionist to an unprecedented and dangerous degree. There really is a formidable right-wing attack machine that doesn't care much about the truth. The Bush administration really did leave the country in shambles.

But as real as all that is, it's clear that Obama just doesn't have the fire in his belly that many activists thought he had. "The president," Yglesias writes, "likes to present himself as a 'pragmatist' uninterested in questions of ideology, and his political strategy is largely organized around a posture of unctuous reasonableness in which he never loses patience with the opposition or affiliates himself emotionally with the passions that drive activists."

And you know what? That's okay. It's not ideal, but it doesn't mean that Obama's first term can't be a success. What it means, however, is that those who voted for transformation can't simply sit back and wait for the man of their dreams to do it for them. That, as we've seen, is a recipe for frustration. And the sooner progressives realize this, the stronger they'll be and the more likely it is that the goals that Obama won America over with -- especially saving the middle class, the "North Star" of his campaign -- will be met.

As I argue in Third World America, what we need is Hope 2.0: the realization that change will not come from Washington or from one man; that real change will only come when enough people outside Washington demand it, and make it politically risky to stick to the status quo.

This is not to say that the list of disappointments isn't every bit as real as the list of roadblocks -- starting with Afghanistan. Being against the war in Iraq from the beginning was in many ways the reason Obama won the Democratic nomination. However, it doesn't seem too much of a stretch to say that had the current Obama been in the Senate in October of 2002, he would have voted with Hillary Clinton on the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution, and thus there never would have been a President Obama -- at least not in 2008.

And yet, eight years later, here he is doubling down on a different war that seems even less likely to succeed, and into which he continues to pour billions of dollars and thousands of American lives.

"Obama need not wonder about his legacy, even this early," wrote Gary Wills in the New York Review of Books. "It is already fixed, and in one word: Afghanistan. He took on what he made America's longest war and what may turn out to be its most disastrous one." It is, writes Wills, "the folly that will be his lasting legacy," and one that "could catch in its trammels the next president, the way Vietnam tied up president after president."

For Afghanistan not to become an albatross around the president's neck, he will have to start seeing the idea of getting out as less risky than the reality of staying in. And that will only happen when the forces aligned against the war convince him of it. As it stands, the coalition against these two disastrous wars long ago became much broader than the left-right frame the media still wants to put it in. What is needed now is for that coalition to make its size known and to resist complacency.

The other major issue on which the administration seems to need extra prodding is the economy. Everywhere you turn, the numbers are awful -- including yesterday's news that bankruptcies have reached the highest level since 2005, with over 420,000 people and businesses filing for bankruptcy between April and June. From June 2009 to June 2010, there were 1.57 million bankruptcies -- a 20 percent increase over the previous 12 months.

The latest unemployment figures are similarly dismal. The $26 billion jobs bill the president signed into law last week is a good but anemic start. As Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute put it, "The economic case for more government action to create jobs is about as clear as they come."

And this isn't something the Obama administration can dismiss as an idea held only by those on "the professional left." Earlier this month, Charlie Rose had on Kenneth Rogoff, a professor of economics at Harvard and former chief economist at the IMF, and David Wessel, the economics editor of the Wall Street Journal.

"Continuing transfers to the states and local government system," said Rogoff, "so they don't have to rein in their jobs too fast, that's, I think, a no brainer." And on the monetary side, Rogoff added, the Fed might be afraid of inflation, but "they've got to take that chance" and "move very hard."

"The president needs to speak plainly to Americans about what the game plan is here," said Wessel, "not to pretend that everything is wonderful, which sometimes, frankly, they do."

Obama's economic team likes to point out -- again and again and again -- how the administration avoided a global financial meltdown in the spring of 2009. That's great, but it's no longer enough. And it's certainly not an adequate excuse for avoiding doing what's needed now. As Wessel said:

The problem now is what if we avoided the Great Depression and we have a decade of stagnation, a lost decade? What if right now we get timid and we're afraid to do the things that we need -- the Federal Reserve, the Congress, the president, businesses, all of us -- to do the things that we need to get going again? So Japan is a warning that just because you don't have a depression doesn't mean you're going to have prosperity for a decade.

Paul Krugman has a similar worry:

Here's what I consider all too likely: Two years from now unemployment will still be extremely high, quite possibly higher than it is now. But instead of taking responsibility for fixing the situation, politicians and Fed officials alike will declare that high unemployment is structural, beyond their control. And as I said, over time these excuses may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the long-term unemployed lose their skills and their connections with the work force, and become unemployable.

He adds: "I'd like to imagine that public outrage will prevent this outcome." In other words, Hope 2.0.

When pressed about making jobs a priority, Obama's response is to plead powerlessness by looking backwards at George Bush and forward at the growing deficit. "We're not going to go back to digging the hole," he said of Bush's economic policies in his speech to labor leaders. And, looking forward, his administration has, in practice, made controlling the deficit a higher priority than creating jobs. Talking Points Memo's look at the deficit commission is a scary coming attraction: "early reports indicate that the GOP's unwillingness to support any significant tax increases is pushing the group toward proposed entitlement slashes and larger budget cuts."

Instead of playing that forward/backwards verbal game, how about focusing on the problems we're facing right now? If the jobs crisis is allowed to simmer on the back burner, Bush's fecklessness will become irrelevant and our future debt infinitely worse.

But taking on the GOP's deficit hawks by hammering home the idea that job growth outweighs concerns about the deficit is clearly not Obama's natural inclination. So here comes Hope 2.0 -- the people have to make him do it.

I get that the progressives, and the activists, and the young people who voted for the first time, and the disillusioned voters who returned to the polls in '08, feel slighted by the president. You thought you had a special connection with him, but it turns out he'd rather hang out with Larry Summers, flirt with Olympia Snowe, or play war games late into the night with David Petraeus. Face it: he just isn't that into you. But, in the end, it doesn't matter where the president's heart is -- it matters what he does. LBJ wasn't that into the National Voting Rights Act until Martin Luther King and the Selma march pushed him into it.

If Obama is going to do the right thing for America's middle class by sticking to his promise to start winding down (for real) the war in Afghanistan in July 2011, and by prioritizing jobs over the long-term deficit, the passion is going to have to come from outside the White House.

To learn more, visit the Third World America section.

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