Just weeks after his election, President Obama articulated how he understood his mandate. In defending his decision to tap Wall Street insiders to fix Wall Street, the president-elect declared himself the embodiment of change. "It comes from me," he insisted. Well, now Obama’s got his chance to show and prove. Because if there will be any real economic reform in the next two years, it will come through the president using his administrative authority and bully pulpit. And if he fails to wield that power, his own job will likely be on the line in 2012.
It turns out 2008 was a pretty conventional election: voters united to reject the party of a terribly unpopular president amid a worsening economy and a frustratingly endless war. Breathless punditry aside, this week’’s Republican "tsunami" is similarly textbook politics: voters united around, well, the same frustrations they had two years ago.
This stuff is basic. Unemployment remains stuck at nearly 10 percent, and if you count the people who are working part-time jobs or who have given up the ghost of work altogether, it’s much higher. Never mind all the people toiling away in multiple jobs to make ends meet, or working longer hours for less money. The economy may be "growing," but it’s a fake growth that’s relevant to real people only in that it’s happening on their backs—companies are getting more for less out of both workers and consumers. As long as that’s the status quo, whoever’s in charge will be unpopular.
Republicans understood this fact from the jump. They did little to conceal their two-part playbook: stand united against any effort Democrats propose for getting people back to work and rally the base with baldly xenophobic appeals. The strategy was as successful as it was irresponsible. In exit polling, more than four out of ten voters identified themselves as conservative; nearly a quarter were over 65 and four out of five were white. So the Republican base came out, as expected, and the independents who voted did so in disgust for those in charge. Independents voted for House Republicans by a whopping 15 percent margin; in 2008, Obama had won them by 8 percent.
Republicans kept their obstructionist word and got their base’s support for doing so. The White House should listen now as the GOP promises more of the same. "I will never let you down," incoming House Speaker John Boehner promised an Ohio tea party gathering. "Across the country right now, we are witnessing a repudiation of Washington, a repudiation of big government," he added in last night’s victory speech.
Boehner’s wrong about what voters have repudiated, and his party’s primary accomplishment this election is having made its precarious dance with the tea party all the more dangerous. Voters who identified themselves as "moderates" stuck by Democrats—there just weren’t enough of them at the polls. And the independents who pushed Republicans over the top weren’t nearly as interested in supporting the GOP’s empty ideas as they were in rejecting the president’s leadership.
Exit polls showed that voters across the political spectrum cast ballots based on the economy. Not healthcare reform or the deficit or immigration or any of the GOP’s favorite tropes, but the economy. Two out of three voters said the economy was their most important concern. Nearly nine out of ten said it was in bad shape and getting worse; more than 30 percent said someone in their household lost a job in the past two years. Independents and the Democratic base are both looking for someone to fight back against the banks that created this mess. Obama hasn’t done it and they abandoned his party as a result.