If you're leading the party in power -- controlling both the House, the Senate, and the presidency -- and your country is facing the most serious economic crisis in a generation, you have two options. You can either fix the problems, or you can make clear to the American people why you can't, and who's stopping you.
Both options would have required bold action. President Obama, aided and abetted by conservatives in Congress, did neither. The electoral consequences are plain to see.
Having been elected on a platform of change, President Obama could have fixed our deep problems. There are numerous examples of how he didn't.
The stimulus was too small. Though it goosed GDP and shaved points off our skyrocketing unemployment numbers [pdf], unemployment remains at 9.2 percent, with real unemployment in the double digits. By giving in to Senate Democratic and Republican "moderates" to keep the size of the stimulus down, President Obama failed to fix the problem.
The banks weren't broken up. Instead, they continue to pay out record billions in bonuses and continue to threaten our economic future with their size. The problem was not fixed.
Foreclosures were not stopped. Instead of allowing homeowners to rewrite mortgages to allow them to stay in their homes, the administration has repeatedly aided banks in foreclosing, driving down income, driving up dissatisfaction, and again failing to fix the problem.
This is not to say the legislation Obama passed weren't accomplishments. Financial reform, health care reform, unemployment benefits, economic recovery packages -- all these things are accomplishments that will make our country better. The thing is, they can be accomplishments and still fail to fix the problem.
Perhaps the problems were just too big to be fixed in two years. I'm sympathetic to that view -- Republicans had eight years to destroy President Clinton's humming economy, so it's hard to expect Obama to fix the damage in just two. But if you can't fix the problems, then you have to show the American people plainly why they can't be fixed, and most importantly, who exactly is stopping you.
In this, Obama has failed as well.
Instead of calling out Republicans like Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter and Democrats like Ben Nelson for standing in the way of a recovery package big enough to fix the economy, Obama made deals with them and proclaimed that the recovery package would hold unemployment at 8 percent. When that didn't happen, the American people didn't have someone to blame, because Obama refused to lay the blame at the feet of the Senators that caused the policy failure.
Instead of fighting for a public option in health reform, the White House undermined it behind closed doors and caved instantly to duplicitous Senators like Joe Lieberman. From deep experience, I know that the reason we passed health reform was because of anger at the insurance companies. But your message gets hopelessly muddled -- even if health reform did in fact take them on -- when you throw out the centerpiece without a fight, at the expense of leaders in the House and Senate from your party who put themselves on the line for it. Without the public option, and on top of the deals with pharmaceutical companies, to many Americans, health reform looked like a compromise with big business.
There was no fight for manifestly popular things like breaking up the big banks or keeping people in their homes, even at the expense of passing legislation, from this White House so far. And as a result, no was made case to the American public why their problems haven't been fixed, and why the big banks and their lobbyist-lead partners in Congress were to blame.
You must either win policies that will solve problems or you make clear enemies and risk losing legislation doing it -- but you cannot do both. The "middle way" of passing weakened policies with a muddled message clearly does not work.
To put it another way, to win you need to unite the base and convince the middle. In fact, unifying the base often leads directly to convincing the middle. The Republican strategy of playing political ball with the Tea Party proves the point -- Republicans decided to play with fire to unify the base, and the unified base projected power towards the middle, convincing them that Republicans were worth their vote yesterday.
Obama, on the other hand, actively disorganizes the base and confuses the middle, a strategy that leads to depressed turnout in elections.
No more salient example exists than his press conference today. Facing questions on the new Republican majority in the House, the president fell back on his weak instincts, calling for conciliation, compromise, and "civility." There's no pledge to fix problems there. There's no makings of a narrative showing the American people exactly who's standing in the way of fixing those problems. Here's what Obama should have said:
Voters yesterday went to the polls to say they want the economy fixed.
Today, I pledge to fix the economy. I sincerely hope Republicans will work with me to do it. But we'll get it done regardless. And if we can't, I'll hold the parties responsible accountable, so the American people will know exactly who is standing in the way of American greatness.
Progressives, leaders in Congress, and the president stand now with an opportunity before us: We can fix America's problems or we can make plain why we can't and who's stopping us. We can unite the base and convince the middle. But we cannot do both.
As a friend put it to me, using the ever-present sports analogies in politics, it's a "rebuilding year." Let's hope the president can learn these lessons, so we can rebuild and move America forward.
I'm proud to work for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, pushing for bold action to fix our country's problems and hold those who stand in our way accountable. Join us.
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