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What Now for the Democrats?

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Let's imagine the political possibilities of the next two years and beyond. So far, President Obama's response to the drubbing of the mid-term has confirmed the progressive community's worst fears. Astonishingly, he still seems to believe the following:

The American people care more about bipartisan compromise and budget cuts than about ending the economic crisis.

If he just compromises a little more, the Republicans might still meet him halfway.
The recipe for economic recovery has something to do with reducing the short term federal deficit.

All three of these premises are disastrously wrong -- as politics and as economics.

Gestures like freezing federal pay levels and cutting the government workforce only play into the rightwing mantra that the government is the problem. Politically, they signal weakness.

This move makes no significant impact on the deficit, reduces employment and purchasing power; and, characteristically, Obama got nothing in return. The Democratic National Committee, disgracefully, even used the Organizing for America email list to try to drum up support for a Democratic president freezing worker pay during a deep recession.

The Bush tax cuts expire on December 31. Most Democrats are beating on the Republicans for refusing to spare 98 percent of Americans a tax hike, so that the top 2 percent can continue to get lower rates. Most Democrats are whacking the Republicans for letting unemployment insurance expire at a time of increased joblessness. But the message gets blurred because of Obama's mixed signals.

And instead of drawing a line in the sand and making clear that Democrats will not cut Social Security, Obama encouraged Democrats to support the scheme of the deficit commission, which was an anti-government, anti-social insurance blueprint that had very little public support and no constructive impact on the economic recovery that the country needs, and robbed Democrats of their most potent issue -- that Democrats defend Social Security and Republicans don't.

To add insult to injury, Obama just proposed yet another Bush-style trade deal with South Korea, which is likely to be a net job loser for the U.S. The widely expected appointment of investment banker and Robert Rubin protégé Roger Altman as Obama's chief economic adviser to succeed Larry Summers will continue the Wall Street dynasty at the White House.

The problem, however, is not Obama's advisers. It is the man who appointed them -- and his failure to know how to fight and lead as a progressive.

Let's stop pretending. Barack Obama is a disaster as a crisis president. He has taken an economic collapse that was the result of Republican ideology and Republican policies, and made it the Democrats' fault. And the more that he is pummeled, the more he bends over.

So what exactly are our prospects and alternatives?

Absent radically different policies, an economic depression will continue indefinitely. This is not a "Great Recession" in the New York Times' cute pun. It's a depression, made up of persistently high unemployment, reduced consumer purchasing power, damaged banks, and business unwillingness to invest, just like the 1930s. Unemployment is not quite as severe, but measured properly it is around 18 percent. And unlike in the 1930s, we don't have a strong Democratic president using activist government to dig our way out.

With Congress deadlocked, the second best course in these circumstances is to offer progressive policies that will cure the depression, and beat the stuffings out of the Republicans for blocking them. But that is simply not going to happen because that is not who Obama is. His style is not to draw bright lines, but to blur them.

Absent that kind of leadership, the Republicans going onto 2012 will succeed in blaming the continuing crisis on Obama and the Democrats. Obama is rapidly becoming our Herbert Hoover. As you will recall, Hoover's legacy was Democratic dominance of American politics for a generation.

The 2012 election is especially bleak because redistricting, with the increased Republican control of statehouses, gives the Republicans a likely pickup of ten to twenty House seats independent of other electoral trends. On the Senate side, just 10 Republican-held seats are up for re-election compared to 23 Democratic ones. The arithmetic alone suggests a Republican Congress.

So the choices boil down to these:

*Let Obama continue to undermine the economy, the real Democratic Party, and the New Deal-Great Society legacy.

*Do a ton of grass roots organizing to put pressure on the administration to change course and in the meantime to back real progressive leaders. The one time in recent memory that something like this worked was in the successful campaign to have Elizabeth Warren appointed interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The trouble is that the Warren appointment was something of a one-off. Though progressive pressure can produce an occasional decent appointment, it is not capable of compelling Obama to grow a spine.

*Run a progressive candidate against Obama in the 2012 primary. At a recent meeting of the Democracy Alliance, most of whose private donors and trade union backers were big Obama supporters, the two White House emissaries were ripped apart. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka was severe in his criticism of the White House failure to promote a real jobs and recovery program. Co-panelist Austan Goolsbee appeared weak and ineffectual, like his President.*

Since the mid-term rout, some progressive donors who were big Obama supporters in 2010, have been meeting on the issue of trying to topple Obama in favor of a Democrat who would be able to fight the 2012 election as an economic progressive with clean hands, challenging the failures of both Obama and of the Republicans. Names that have been mentioned include Howard Dean, Russ Feingold, and Byron Dorgan.

My initial reaction was that this idea is both premature and far-fetched. Ted Kennedy's run against Jimmy Carter in 1980 only softened up Carter for Ronald Reagan in the general election. On the other hand, toppling LBJ was the right thing to do. Had Bobby Kennedy not been murdered or had Hubert Humphrey displayed just a bit more nerve, the Democrats could well have held off Richard Nixon in 1968, and emerged as a more effective governing progressive party.

The labor movement is just disgusted with Obama. Young people who rallied to him are turned off. Progressives in Congress are seething. Obama could well head into 2012 with little of his base intact, save the African American community. A serious primary challenger could easily win Iowa, where it all began. And a primary fight is a terrific organizing tool. It could force the media to take note of a progressive message about the economy.

Even if this doesn't come to pass, it is salutary that serious conversations are occurring, because it gets the attention of the White House, and raises the possibility, however faint, of a more progressive Obama.

There is also the likelihood in 2012 of a centrist independent candidate, perhaps Michael Berlusconi -- oops, I mean Bloomberg -- the billionaire martinet mayor of New York. What -- is Obama not centrist enough? Do we really need three candidates from Wall Street?

If things proceed as they have been going, here is what's likely:

Republicans take both Houses in 2012. Obama may barely hold on to the presidency, in which case a continuing depression becomes even more of his responsibility and we have an eight-year Herbert Hoover that the Republicans can run against for a generation.

Alternatively, Obama loses in 2012, Republicans become the governing party, do incredible damage, but don't cure the depression. And there is a shot that a progressive Democrat wins in 2016.

We could be in for a period like the late 19th century, of festering economic and social problems, failed one-term presidencies, and partisan oscillation in Congress.

To be clear: I am not rooting for a wall-to-wall Republican win is 2012 on the faint hope that it will set the stage for a Democratic comeback for years later. I am too mindful of the pitiful slogan of German leftists in 1933 -- "After Hitler, Us." Palin is not Hitler, but there is never a good tactical reason to root for the far right.

Yet if we are to be spared an awful decade, both economically and politically, either Obama needs to grow a backbone; or some other Democrat could well challenge him in 2012. Either course will require the progressive community to stop crying in our beer and to get out and organize.

*Correction: A previous version of this post erroneously stated that Goolsbie left the Democracy Alliance panel. This line has been removed from the post.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A President in Peril.

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