Political observers surprised by the Democratic Party loss in the Massachusetts Senate election last night should take a second look at the trouble Barack Obama had attracting so-called "lunch-bucket" voters in the 2008 presidential primaries. The problem that once plagued the campaign of candidate Obama has now metastasized to the whole party of President Obama. It took one year for that to happen and the consequences could be dire for the Democrats.
2008? Most American voters can barely remember what they tweeted 12 minutes ago, let alone what the dominant election narrative was over a year ago. But remember it they should, because the story of Obama's failures in presidential primary states like Pennsylvania and Massachusetts was remarkably similar to the story coming out of last night's loss in the Senate race.
Reporting in March of 2008, NPR's Mara Liason observed, "Sen. Barack Obama, who has built his string of victories with the support of upscale affluent voters, is now trying hard to win support from the so-called "lunch-bucket" Democrats." Liason then when on to quote one voter in particular who summed up this "lunch-bucket" perspective on Obama in 2008:
"She just seems more in touch with people than Barack Obama does," he says.
The "she," of course, was Hillary Clinton, who won her way into the hearts and minds of white working-voters with a few shots of whiskey and a relentless focus on Main Street issues. Try as he might, Obama never managed to become a symbol that lunch-bucket Democrats took as their own. While the impact of that vote was diminished in the fray of the national election against McCain, the x-factor of the lunch-bucket Democrats remained in play.
If the right-wing should be credited with one accomplishment in 2009, it is turning the lunch-bucket albatross of one Presidential campaign into the symbol of the entire Democratic Party. That transformation was bound to happen eventually, but News Corp made it happen in under twelve months.
As a result, when lunch-bucket voters looked at Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts Senate race, they saw a symbol of elites who speak for vested interests rather than working families. They saw, in other words, the same candidate they did not trust in the 2008 Presidential primaries. And seeing that symbol, they either stayed home or flocked to the opposition's "anti-government" anger. Either way, the lunch-bucket voters were the decisive factor in the Coakley loss.
How is it that Obama managed to allow his big weakness with lunch-bucket voters to become the Achilles heel of the entire party? "It's the economy, stupid."
There will be a great deal of finger pointing from every interest group in the Democratic Party, but the bottom line on the weakness that now plagues the party of Obama is: the economy.
The problem began with his staffing choices at the White House. Starting with his Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, who made a fortune as a trader prior to entering politics--Obama has built a team with virtually zero credibility with working families.
His economic policy decisions grew out from there.
Having bet all his chips on a bailout of Wall Street tycoons, President Obama's economic policy has failed to convince voters that Democrats care more about working people than hedge fund billionaires.
And then there was healthcare.
Having proudly proclaimed that he would spearhead real health care reform on behalf of the millions of ordinary Americans in need, President Obama's "health insurance reform" agenda has been tarnished in the eyes of the public by a series of secret meetings held early on with captains of insurance and pharmaceutical industries.
In the eyes of lunch-bucket voters, the result of Barack Obama's policy agenda has been crystal clear and decisively damning. Just as the lunch-bucket voters feared--Obama has become the very symbol of a politician who says one thing on the stump, but then does the opposite once he gets back to Washington.
Is the perception of the lunch-bucket voters fair? Yes and no. But in elections, to complain about what is and is not fair is the same as admitting you have already lost. The key is just to get out there and change it.
Perhaps the greatest political gift of George W. Bush was his ability to convince the public that an oil-tycoon, trust-fund, Yale-flunkie was actually a man of the people. It was a remarkable achievement. Obama's life truly is a testament to the American myth of pulling oneself up by our bootstraps--and, yet, he is perceived as a latte liberal elitist.
The solution to this problem is not for Barack Obama to suddenly take a keen interest in clearing scrub brush or for him to suddenly discover that he enjoys dressing up in day-glow hunters camouflage and strolling along country roads with a shotgun slung over his arm. More beer photo-op schmooze sessions will not help either. Were President Obama to overreach for that kind of kitschy sudz-n-ammo symbolism in 2010, it would only make things worse for the himself and the Democrats.
What Obama needs to do, and fast, if he wants to stop his slowly sinking Democratic Party from going under--is advance a significant piece of symbolic legislation that benefits lunch-bucket voters. The key phrase is "symbolic legislation," by which I mean: toothsome legislation packed with real substance, but that resonates strongly at a symbolic level.
Obama needs to promote one piece of legislation that re-establishes the party as the voice of lunch-bucket voters--as the party that truly advocates for Main Street instead of Wall Street. And once he advances this symbolic legislation, he needs to defend it like a momma bear defends her cub until it passes. And bears do not compromise--they growl.
In the face of all the critics who will rise up against his symbolic legislation--critics from the right and the left--President Obama needs to stand firm and fight them off.
What should this symbolic legislation be? It should be jobs bill (c.f., "...economy...stupid.")
With the Coakley loss fresh on his mind, Obama should sit down and craft a truly symbolic jobs bill that throws the proverbial kitchen sink at the national unemployment rate like his life and the future of the free world depended on it.
Moreover, Obama should advance this symbolic jobs legislation from a position outside of Washington--spending as much time as possible in 2010 in the burned-out wastelands of the shattered American dream.
In 2010, Obama should spend nearly every day shaking hands and talking to people in Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, and that's just for starters.
Here is the key: there is no negotiating with a symbol. Obama must hold firm on his symbolic jobs legislation and he must speak passionately about why we must all support it. It must be real; it must be meaningful; and by standing up and defending it day after day across America, voters will come to see how vital and important it is to all of us.
With his symbolic legislation in hand, Obama must stand up every day and take it on the chin for lunch-bucket voters. That is the only way forward.
The lesson of the lunch-bucket Democrats coming out of 2008 and 2009 is not hard to see: either claim the symbol of Main Street for the Democratic Party, or someone else will.
The future of the Democratic Party depends on whether or not President Obama still has it in him to learn from that lesson and do something about it--fast.