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Cathy J. Cohen Headshot

Learned From the Midterms. Are You Listening President Obama?

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Now that the dust has begun to settle on the 2010 midterm elections, what did we learned from that traumatic experience? Let's make sure that the intellectual air around the White House is able to hear and digest what "the people" told us!

First, we must understand that much of the "throw the bums out" mood witnessed during the midterms had everything to do with the economy and little to do with love or confidence in either party. The vote on November 2nd was about getting the attention of the ruling elite. It was a vote to express outrage that somehow the folks in Washington were still oblivious to the loosely agreed upon priority of the populace, namely the need to create jobs and fix the economy. Now the Republicans will try and spin the election results as a story about rejecting "Obamacare," or voters prioritizing the deficit, or some voters even supporting tax breaks for the rich. Let them go down that road if they wish and suffer the consequences of yet another party of elites not listening to the electorate and making their own agenda the priority instead of creating living wage jobs.

I would warn the Obama administration to not confuse the directive from the voters to create jobs with a message about wanting more bipartisan politics or frustration with the gridlock that dominates Washington -- largely because of the party of "no." Of course, people are sick and tired of gridlock but right now most people only care about gridlock and bipartisanship because those are thought to block traction on their real concern -- jobs and a stable economy. If the Democrats alone produce jobs they will be rewarded for that work and not a word will be spoken about the absence of bipartisan politics. So President Obama please stop trying to promote bipartisanship, except that which is needed to produce the jobs the electorate demands.

Second, I would encourage the President to set a bold agenda for job creation during the next two years as he campaigns for re-election. He may be defeated in November 2012 -- yes, I wrote it -- but better to be defeated because of mistakes than missteps. Mistakes come from betting wrong but making a decision and engaging in decisive action. Missteps come from tip-toeing around issues in an attempt to just do enough to get re-elected. I believe that the Democrats lost many midterm contests because they decided to tip-toe around their policy agenda of the previous two years. Instead of defending their work to pass health care reform, curb wall street abuses, reign in the credit card industry and make college affordable for working people, the Democrats tip-toed around these issues just enough to loose control of the political story-telling that defined their last two years of work.

Finally, I would encourage the President to not forget those segments of the Democratic majority who have stayed true and turned out for Democrats when many other groups went red. It would be easy for this administration to point to the losses among progressives such as the defeat of Russ Feingold as a lesson about the negative consequences of moving too far left from the center and speaking too directly to progressive constituencies like people of color and youth. President Obama and the Democratic Party must remember that they have to continue to work to secure and energize those parts of their base that proved so essential in 2008. It is critical that the Democrats remember: it was young Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans that drove the increase in the youth vote in 2008. Census data indicates that the turnout for young Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans, 18-29 in 2008, increased by 9, 6 and 11 percentage points respectively over their turnout rates in 2004. Young whites demonstrated no change in turnout between 2004 and 2008.

Keeping young people of color on board for 2012 will mean taking on issues such as immigration, violence in urban cities, public education, college affordability, and living-wage job creation, while also investing in implementing a creative and effective mobilizing infrastructure now. Both scholars and activists know the critical role that mobilization plays in facilitating and sustaining political participation. We also know that mobilization is not equally disseminated. Research has shown that traditional party-based mobilization strategies generally do not work and often cannot be found in communities of color. Data collected through the Mobilization and Change Project, for example, found that while Whites are more likely to be mobilized for political action through the parties, mobilization efforts targeting black Americans are more likely to come from community and religious organizations.

An investment in building an infrastructure to engage and mobilize youth, especially young people of color whose percentage of the youth population will only continue to grow, is needed if the Democrats and President Obama are to win. Paying attention to these three important lessons will help the Democrats and the President recapture the momentum of 2008 and secure a second chance to truly deliver " change you can believe in"," or at the least, create jobs that people can live on.

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332 206
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Current Senate 53 47
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All 435 seats are up for election. 218 are needed for a majority.
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