08/11/2011 02:21 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2011

Antidote for a Depressing Time

We have just experienced one of the most depressing periods in government and politics since I began following them many years ago.

It is partly due to the Tea Party, of course -- know-nothing ideologues who think government spending and higher taxes on the wealthy and profitable megacorporations are greater threats to the U. S. than a stagnating economy. They must not understand -- or don't care -- that government spending can stimulate the economy, producing enough demand to encourage business to invest. Even if a balanced budget is good idea in the abstract, timing is everything: First, invest to grow the economy; then, balance the budget. They seem not to understand that when government programs put money in the pockets of individuals, they not only ease individual hardship, but also grow the economy when those folks spend that money. That growth then encourages private entrepreneurs to make their own investments, and it is those private investments -- multiplied many times over -- that unleash the innovative future that can keep the U. S. on top.

To my mind, an even bigger cause of the depressing episode was the abdication of "mainstream" Republicans. They like to stay out of the limelight, so we don't think about them much, but their capitulation to their Tea Party colleagues in the recent "debates" over the debt ceiling and spending inflated the impact of the Tea Party minority. Whether they were influenced more by interest-group lobbyists or the threat of primary fights from far-right challengers is irrelevant. They should have known better.

But -- and it pains me to say this -- I am most disappointed by the president's failure to change the conversation. He could have used his prodigious powers of reason and his rhetorical gifts to persuade the public that the ideas of the "crazies" (to use Governor Christie's term) not only cannot rescue the economy, but make it worse. He knows what governments can do -- and, indeed, have done in the past -- to get economies out of pickles like the one we are in now. And while he is comfortable engaging in academic debates, he is also capable of telling the down-to-earth stories that will bring the grand lessons home to a worried, but receptive public. He is the one who can and must make the case to the American public -- repeatedly, relentlessly.

He should propose legislation that will create jobs, rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, and invest in our future. (If he needs progressive ideas, he can have his staff read the progressive newspaper columnists and guests on MSNBC's various programs who have articulated many sound ideas.) And if he cannot get his proposals through this Congress, he will at least force his Congressional opponents to take positions on the record. In 2012, those votes will prove unpopular with a public whose main concern is jobs. As Tip O'Neill did in the 1980s, Democratic challengers can identify local projects opposed by their districts' own Congressmen who voted their ideology instead of their constituents' -- and the nation's -- best interests.

Winning a second term will prove to be a hollow victory for the president unless the current doctrinaire Republican Congress is beaten and a new Congress -- with substantial majorities of progressive Democrats -- is elected in its place. The president can help create that outcome by sending policy proposals to Congress, taking direct executive branch actions, and demonstrating a willingness to invest his own ample rhetorical gifts, his access to the media and the public, and, not least, his passion to make the case for progress. The nation's future depends on it.

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