There’s no disguising it—the results of the midterm elections were, with a few exceptions, grim, as candidates who are intent on rolling back decades of economic and social progress were swept into office. But this is no time to despair. It is time to stand and fight for a real debate about ideas and for small-d democracy.
This was an unearned win for the Republican Party. The election was overwhelmingly about the lousy economy and high unemployment, and Democrats paid the price as voters expressed their discontent with the party in power. Conservatives of both parties are just plain wrong to claim the vote represented an ideological shift to the right.
The quickly congealing conventional wisdom claims that President Obama tried to do too much and was too liberal. Wrong. The reality is that the administration and conservative Democrats were too timid in tackling the dire economic crisis inherited from George W. Bush. The public was alienated not because of Obama’s overreaching but because his team hasn’t fought aggressively enough against well-funded and entrenched interests. For thirty years the working and middle classes have seen their incomes stagnate as the top 1 percent have accrued a staggering percentage of the nation’s wealth. By rescuing instead of reforming the big banks, the White House economic team, led by Wall Street–tainted Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, ceded populist energy to the Tea Party and its corporate funders. The inadequacy of the president’s recovery program, largely a result of concessions to the GOP, became a political and economic catastrophe for the White House.
In the end, the Democrats suffered because the anemic economy hasn’t been generating enough jobs—and the president failed to convince voters he was piloting a consistent course that would turn things around. Furthermore, the absence of a forceful and sustained explanation of how conservative policies have failed and will continue to fail enabled a right-wing narrative of empty slogans, fearmongering and outright mendacity to gain traction. Obama’s decision to abandon his smart argument about building a new foundation for the economy and his premature embrace of deficit reduction only left voters confused about the White House’s program for recovery.
The president must lay out a clear and bold plan to create jobs, jobs and more jobs and get the economy going—and fight with conviction for those plans against anyone standing in the way. He should take the advice of the more than 300 economists who have urged his administration not to focus prematurely on deficit reduction. Joining the GOP embrace of Social Security and Medicare cuts and meanspirited austerity makes for bad policy and bad politics. The Democrats should fight for sensible investments, especially in infrastructure, green-energy initiatives and research and development. Obama should suspend his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which has laid out an unrealistic and counterproductive proposal to reduce the federal deficit to 3 percent of GDP by 2015.
The president might consider the dramatic use of executive power to rebuild the economy. This would be smart politics, as it would energize key and core constituencies. And it wouldn’t hurt if the White House fused a bold economic program with a clear, concrete and, yes, passionate message. Maybe it’s time for the first lady—who spoke so powerfully on the stump in the election’s final weeks—to explain to her husband that bloodless, analytical detachment just doesn’t cut it. Obama might also seek counsel from Elizabeth Warren, who as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is standing with beleaguered families versus predatory banks. Robust support for Warren would convince voters that the government is not on their backs but on their side.
As he made clear in his first postelection press conference, the president remains committed to a politics of civility and common ground. Fine, but if he meets with Republican obstruction, Obama should channel Harry Truman and come out fighting against a know-nothing and do-nothing GOP. If he’s determined to pursue a politics of common ground, why not define it as one of economic dignity and social justice, one that ends the corruption and special entitlements that have allowed the very richest to amass great fortunes while the vast majority of Americans struggle to make ends meet? Common ground, if it means making the government more responsive to the needs of the majority. Common ground, if it means public investment in people, in our deteriorating infrastructure, in research and development that serves human needs and rebuilds America’s competitiveness in the world. Common ground, if it means ending a wasteful and destructive war in Afghanistan. Common ground, if it means campaign finance reform that levels the playing field so ordinary Americans’ voices aren’t drowned out by more and more covert and corporate money. And common ground, if it means listening to and remobilizing a base that is the heart and soul of a renewed and revived Democratic Party. A rising American electorate—young people, Latinos, African-Americans, single women, union members—would be an effective counterweight to the assaults of an emboldened GOP and its corporate funders.
The extremist GOP may have won control of the House, but it does not have a mandate to dismantle government. According to many polls, majorities across party lines want government to work, and they support a range of reforms to protect them against economic hardship and the marketplace. That includes retirement security, education, consumer protection, investment in infrastructure—but not tax cuts for the rich, subsidies for companies that offshore US jobs, elimination of the Education Department or privatization of Social Security and Medicare.
The nation confronts urgent problems. It is still in the throes of an economic crisis. Poverty and inequality are growing, the middle class is shrinking. President Obama should seize the moment to show that he is committed to standing with Americans who have been shafted. This is not a time to retreat. This is a time for the politics of conviction that Obama has said he believes in. Yes you can, Mr. President.