President Barack Obama at his press conference today drew a stark contrast between his administration and the Republicans in Congress who are dedicated to obstructing any sound economic program for purely short-term political advantage. He also made a convincing case for ditching George W. Bush's reckless, deficit-ballooning government relief program for rich people and corporations. It was a great economics seminar on how the Republican/Chamber of Commerce "free market" policies over the past decade brought the country down to the sorry state it now finds itself. But as a political salve for suffering Democratic congressional and state candidates it didn't do much to change the dominant narrative.
Unfortunately, the president stopped short of making a dramatic announcement that he was appointing Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren to head the new financial consumer protection bureau. That announcement would have energized the Democratic base and provided candidates at the local level with evidence that the administration in Washington still has a pulse with respect to the interests of middle-class Americans.
But on Professor Warren's future job prospects he was cagey -- unnecessarily so.
"I'll have an announcement soon about how we're going to move forward," is all he said. The only thing this stance accomplishes is to reinforce the narrative that he is still leaning toward Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and Rahm Emanuel instead of Professor Warren on the central economic issues and attitude toward Wall Street. Elizabeth Warren is quite simply the only person affiliated with the administration in any way who has clearly stood up for the vast majority of Americans who earn $50,000 a year or less. She's been a fighter against the Wall Street interests that Obama seems committed to coddling. Memo to White House: Coddling Wall Street is not very popular these days.
Professor Warren is the "Change" Obama talked about for two years while he was running for president. If he doesn't have the guts to appoint her and names someone else to head that agency it will take even more of the wind out of the sails of the Democratic base going into the elections. He ducked the Warren issue and thereby missed a great opportunity to bridge a small section of the yawning "enthusiasm gap."
The only questions that matter politically right now are: How did the president's press conference today help politicians like California Senator Barbara Boxer, who is being savaged in a barrage of mean-spirited and inaccurate television ads paid for by out-of-state money from the national Chamber of Commerce? And how did the President's remarks today help candidates who are targeted by the $100 million post-Citizens United corporate slush fund managed by Karl Rove called "American Crossroads?"
The Afghanistan portion of his press conference was by far the weakest. The idea that Hamid Karzai is going to do anything to curb "corruption" is a foolish delusion. For a moment the President's eloquence left him and he seemed to be channeling George W. Bush. Someone has got to get through to him that a country that is reeling economically cannot continue the costly illusion of being a global hegemon. The military budgets and the costs of the wars are bleeding the U.S. treasury dry.
The supreme irony here is that there shouldn't be any kind of "enthusiasm gap" going on at all because, let's face it, Obama is the very best president we could ever elect in our corrupt and money-soaked political discourse.
Obama's political hack Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, who sparked Sarah Palin's saccharine wrath by calling progressives "retarded," (whose leaving would be the best development for the Obama White House since the inauguration) has been whispering in the President's ear for two years that there was political gold ($$$) by playing nice with Wall Street and screwing over his progressive base; hence, the great "enthusiasm gap" of 2010!
Remember the lengthy primary of 2007-08? A great many Democrats who comprise the base of the party believed they had cast their vote against Hillary Clinton in order to block a Clinton restoration. Yet it seems a Clinton restoration is what they got. It's not surprising then that two years later these same base voters lack "enthusiasm." The spectacle of a Democratic president forsaking those who elected him to court an imaginary "center," or to "reach out" to a recalcitrant and belligerent Republican minority has an aura of déjà vu to it.
Dispirited Democrats might be a little less dispirited right now if President Obama had beaten up on Wall Street a little more, or forced banks to renegotiate underwater mortgages, or fought for single payer health care, or held to account former Bush officials who were responsible for some of the more egregious abuses, or appointed an Education Secretary who values teachers, or withdrew U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, or . . .
There is an "enthusiasm gap" between Republican and Democratic voters where there shouldn't be. But there also appears to be an outbreak of American amnesia. It wasn't long ago when we could see James Carville on CNN nightly denouncing people who switched their votes from Clinton to Obama as "Judases." In Fall 2010, the meta-text feels like a widespread understated longing on the part of the chattering classes for a 1994-style Republican route. Obama must continue to talk directly to the American people but he also must take concrete steps toward reinvigorating public institutions, unapologetically, and throwing a lifeline to a drowning middle class.