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.
Here's a telling stat: half of the House's conservative Blue Dog Democrats—a coalition formed out of fear the party had drifted too far left—lost last night, according to the Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel. Meanwhile, in economically devastated Toledo, Ohio, progressive Democrat Marcy Kaptur kept her seat as Democrats around the state fell. Kaptur has been one of the loudest voices in Washington demanding Wall Street accountability and real foreclosure relief. (Alongside Florida's one-term firebrand Rep. Alan Grayson, who got clobbered after calling his even-tempered Republican opponent "Taliban Dan.")
And more telling stats: While a majority of this week's voters agreed government is "doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals," previous polls have shown it’s important to dig deeper into that question. A Project Vote survey this summer, for instance, similarly found large numbers who said government spends too much money. But on what? Huge majorities said it should spend less on war and on bailing out banks and corporations, while spending more on public education, public works projects and stopping foreclosures.
Neither Obama's rhetoric nor his long list of big-ticket initiatives match up with these desires. Starting with the too-small stimulus of 2009 and running through to the too-weak Wall Street reform of 2010, the White House marched Congress and voters alike through deeply difficult debates that produced little tangible reform. Obama would have been better served picking one principled fight and standing behind it, win or lose. As it is, he's spent two years apologizing for his enemies and putting himself between the people and the banks—while neither creating jobs nor saving homes in the end.
Wall Street even handed the Democrats a perfect campaign-closing story in its foreclosure-fraud scandal. But rather than vowing to stand up for homeowners, the president refused to act and declared himself wary of "wasting that money on folks who don't deserve help." This argument—that we can't save those who banks cheated for fear of helping speculators and irresponsible borrowers—put the president in lock step with his predecessor.
And that's the Democrats' problem. The kinda-sorta reforms they've passed under Obama's leadership don't nearly measure up to the massive challenges we face. Poverty is at record levels. Hunger is at record levels. Millions have lost their homes. Unemployment is in double digits among African-Americans, and at Depression levels among the black young people who drove 2008's remarkable youth vote. Pundits asked what happened to those young and black voters yesterday. But how much more can we ask of them? If Obama wants their support, he'll need to fight for them with the same vigor that he pursues comity with Republicans and bankers.
The president's not off to a good start on that score. In today's speech, he's widely expected to continue his Republican outreach. And after the "professional left" of organized labor rallied to support Democrats, despite the White House's open hostility, Obama's first post-election act will be a ten-day trip abroad to sign free trade agreements.
The question he’ll face when he returns is simple: Whose side is he on? If he’s the embodiment of reform that he professes to be, he’ll show it by wielding the power he already has to fix things without Congress. He can freeze foreclosures and force meaningful loan modifications tomorrow. He can end his record-breaking pace of deportations tomorrow. He can truly empower the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to do its job and stop financial predation. He can stop supporting "don't ask, don't tell" and quit bullying states into testing-obsessed school reform. He can stop acting like he doesn't hear the right’s chorus of hate and use his bully pulpit to articulate a different set of American values.
Yes, he can do all these things. He’s got two years to correct the course that led his party to its bleak November 3 morning. Of course, that's two years more time than millions of struggling families have before the bottom falls out. So here's hoping Obama learned that much at least during his recent listening tour through America’s backyards—and that he will finally start to lead for the people who put him in office.