09/11/2011 08:53 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2011

Future Imperfect

Looking forward, what is the best and worst that we can expect in politics and economics?

Suppose President Obama's jobs speech of last Thursday marks a turning point. He gets energized by being a little more partisan. He finds that putting Republicans on the defensive is good politics. His poll numbers improve. He wins some of his proposed jobs bill, and fights hard for the rest of it.

As unemployment remains persistently high going into an election year, he offers even stronger medicine. His base gets energized.

(Stay with me here, I know this is a bit wishful -- it's an exercise, a thought experiment, not a prediction -- but the alternative is to just slit our wrists.)

As the election draws closer, voters take a closer look at what Republicans are actually offering and it isn't very appetizing. Rick Perry, the likely GOP nominee, who has never faced tough media scrutiny, doesn't wear well. He has trouble dancing away from the truly nutty stuff he has embraced in the recent past.

So Obama is re-elected in 2012. Skeptical voters in the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin are not thrilled with the recession and the Democrats, but even less happy with Republican governors and austerity.

Even better, a resurgent Obama has coattails. The House flips back to narrowly Democratic. Keeping Democratic control of the Senate will be tougher, with 23 Democratic seats and just 10 Republican ones up in 2012. Democrats will have to take every winnable race, but let's say they do, and the Senate stays barely Democratic.

What then?

The economy is still mired in stagnation, and it's a long slog. The deflationary forces preventing a recovery will still be there: depressed wages and purchasing power; lost household wealth; a traumatized small business sector; banks that would rather use cheap money to trade than to lend; too little job-creation.

There is no easy fix other than massive government spending, radical reform of the banking system, and drastic restructuring of the mortgage mess. Budget austerity of the sort embraced by Team Obama in the debt-ceiling deal will only add to the economic downdraft.

Though it will be an uphill battle for Obama to win re-election, much less to take a Democratic Congress with him, it is actually easier to imagine Democrats pulling out an electoral win in 2012 than it is to envision them embracing the far bolder medicine that the economy needs. And, even under the best of circumstances, there will still be Republican use of the filibuster.

Obama would have to win back broad popularity, use the presidency to explain just what it will take to restore prosperity, trade austerity for New Deal II, and then use his political capital to force Republicans to take vote after vote against economic recovery -- or stop blocking his program. I would not bet the farm on any of this happening.

So, barring a miracle, even if Obama is re-elected, the likelihood is for a generation of depressed economic potential, sour politics, and more voter disillusion with government.
At worst, Obama could be the Democratic Herbert Hoover for not just one term but two.

Okay then, suppose Obama loses. If the Republicans win, President Rick Perry will almost certainly take a Republican House and Senate with him.

We can imagine intensified assaults on Social Security and Medicare, more moves to turn America into a theocracy, and the courts will be lost for a generation. More deregulation and privatization, too.

However -- nothing the Republicans say or do will improve the economy for regular people. An austerity program, even tempered by tax cuts, will only worsen the stagnation.
More Americans will be reliant on a safety net the Republicans are shredding.

So, going into 2016, the Republicans will own an economy in protracted depression.
And as opposition party, progressive Democrats will be full-throated, no longer in the awkward position of being upstaged by their centrist president.

Assuming the Republicans don't find a way to cancel the 2016 election, a Democrat would have a good shot at winning. And a progressive Democrat (if one can be found) would have a good chance at being nominated.

Let me be clear here. I am not saying that we'd be better off if Obama lost in 2012. The risks of that course are simply too great. In the 1930s, German leftists adopted the slogan, "After Hitler, Us." It didn't work out so well.

No, I'd rather see Obama win, but win as a progressive -- because he will certainly not win as a centrist promoting more belt-tightening, much less as an appeaser letting Republicans roll over him.

There is a real risk, however, that the presidency in the years after 2012 will be a poisoned chalice. The economy is going to be depressed for a while. The party that owns the economy for the next four years is unlikely to be re-elected in 2016, unless that party governs with a far bolder and more progressive strategy than anything either party is currently offering.

Come to think of it, that describes the 2012 election as well.

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