Election 2010 will be known as a "shellacking," the president’s characteristically tempered term for what might better be called a rage-fueled bloodletting. Democrats lost more than sixty seats in the House, the worst rout in postwar history, as well as six Senate seats and key statehouses and governorships.
Republicans framed these results as a repudiation of liberalism. The "unmistakable message," said incoming House Speaker John Boehner, was "change course." Blue Dog Democrats, after suffering the loss of half of their caucus, called for a turn to "incrementalism," in the words of Representative Heath Shuler, who suggested that Nancy Pelosi should be displaced as the party’s leader in the House. (Thankfully, the lady is not for turning.) Washington pundits argued that Obama’s mistake was trying to do too much, catering to his liberal base, and they advised him to imitate Bill Clinton after 1994 by trimming his sails and tacking to the center.
Before this conventional wisdom hardens into received truth, progressives need to take a tough, lucid look at what really happened. With the country beleaguered at home and abroad and the push for reform frustrated, it is vital that we lay out a clear strategy going forward.
It’s Still the Economy
With unemployment near 10 percent, the economy was the overriding issue. Exit polls showed that 40 percent of voters said that their financial situation had gotten worse since two years ago, and two-thirds of them went for Republicans. Voters don’t hold Obama responsible for the mess—Bush and Wall Street are sensibly given most of the blame. But not surprisingly, they hold Obama and the Democrats responsible for failing to fix it.
Obama’s problem wasn’t that he did too much or was too liberal. It was that he did too little and wasn’t radical enough. The recovery plan stopped the economic free fall that Obama inherited, but it wasn’t enough to get the economy going. Weakened by unified Republican obstruction and wrongheaded Blue Dog opposition, public spending was barely enough to counter budget cuts at the state and local level.
Given the scope of the financial bust—Americans lost nearly $11 trillion in the value of their savings and homes—any recovery would have been predictably slow and difficult. That made winning the larger battle of ideas and discrediting the failed conservative policies that drove the economy off the cliff a crucial long-term strategy. But here the president was largely absent without leave. Hoping for bipartisan cooperation, Obama chose not to level a searing critique of conservatism, as Reagan had of liberalism when he took office. His economic advisers Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers were particularly hapless, for they were implicated in the crisis and still espoused much of the neoliberal gospel. Confident that the Recovery Act would work, the White House presented it as the solution, not as the first step in an ongoing drive to build a new economy.
This folly was exacerbated by the decision to continue the Paulson-Bernanke-Geithner policy of rescuing the banks without reorganizing them or at least forcing heads to roll. Taking a cue from the Tea Party, Republicans conflated the recovery plan with Bush’s bank bailout. The administration was charged with running up deficits to bail out Wall Street without creating jobs on Main Street. Without revising their failed mantra, Republicans presented themselves to voters as populist tribunes (while peddling themselves to Wall Street as their protectors). The ploy worked: exit polls showed that a plurality of voters (35 percent) blamed Wall Street for the economic mess, but these same voters chose Republicans over Democrats by a 56 to 42 percent margin. This is the full measure of the White House’s political malpractice.