As the dust clears from the electoral battlefield, the corporate press is unanimous: the people have spoken, and their verdict is that President Obama must "move to the center." Onto the butcher block must go entitlements—Medicare, Social Security. The sky darkens with vultures eager to pick the people’s bones.
In fact, election day delivered no such verdict. The American people spoke, and their message was confused. When exit pollsters questioned 17,000 voters across the nation as to who should take the blame for the country’s economic problems, 35 percent said Wall Street, 29 percent said Bush and 24 percent said Obama. Just over half of the respondents (57 percent) said that their votes in House races had nothing to do with the Tea Party. The other half was split on the Tea Party, pro (22 percent) or con (17 percent). More than 60 percent said the all-important issue is the economy; 86 percent said they are worried about economic conditions. On whether government should lay out money to create jobs or slash expenditures to reduce the deficit, there’s also a near-even split.
The American people want a government that doesn’t govern, a budget that will simultaneously balance and create jobs, and spending cuts across the board that leave the defense budget intact. Collectively, the election made plain, they haven’t a clear notion of which way to march.
Obama must carry a substantial part of the blame for this. He delivered no clear message, no clarion call. For two years he gave labor nothing; he gave his most loyal constituency—black America—nothing. When the "One Nation" rally mustered in Washington on October 2, there was no stentorian message of support from Obama for the event, sponsored by the NAACP and the AFL-CIO. Among the vast throngs who gathered for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s politically inconsequential "sanity rally" on October 30, how many were young people who had voted for Obama in 2008, their passionate expectations now mutilated on the battlefields of Obamian realpolitik?
As Obama reviews his options, which way will he head? He’s already supplied the answer. He’ll try to broker deals to reach "common ground" with the Republicans, the strategy that destroyed those first two years of opportunity.
What do the next two years hold? Already there are desperate urgings from progressives for Obama to hold the line. Already there are the omens of a steady stream of concessions by Obama to the right. There’s hardly any countervailing pressure for him to do otherwise. The president has no fixed principles of political economy, and who is at his elbow in the White House? Not the labor secretary, Hilda Solis. Not that splendid radical Elizabeth Warren, whose Consumer Financial Protection Bureau the Republicans are already scheduling for destruction. Next to Obama is Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, the bankers’ lapdog, whom the president holds in high esteem.
In the months ahead, as Obama parleys amiably with the right on budgetary discipline and deficit reduction, the anger of the progressive left will mount. At some point a champion of the left will step forward to challenge him in the primaries. This futile charade will expire at the 2012 Democratic National Convention amid the rallying cry of "unity."
The White House deserves the menace of a convincing threat now, not some desperate intra–Democratic Party challenge late next year by Michael Moore or, yet again, Dennis Kucinich.
There is a champion of the left with sound appeal to the sane populist right. He was felled on November 2, and he should rise again before his reputation fades. His name is Russ Feingold, currently a Democrat and the junior senator from Wisconsin. I urge him to decline any job proffered by the Obama administration and not to consider running as a challenger inside the Democratic Party. I urge him, not too long after he leaves the Senate, to bruit the possibility of a presidential run as an independent; then, not too far into 2011, to embark on such a course.
Why would he be running? Unlike Teddy Kennedy challenging Jimmy Carter in 1979, Feingold would have a swift answer. To fight against the Republicans and the White House in defense of the causes he has publicly supported across a lifetime. He has opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His was the single Senate vote against the Patriot Act; his was a consistent vote against the constitutional abuses of both the Bush and Obama administrations. He opposed NAFTA and the bank bailouts. He is for economic justice and full employment. He is the implacable foe of corporate control of the electoral process. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January was aimed in part at his landmark campaign finance reform bill.
A Wisconsin voter wrote me in the wake of the election, "Feingold likely lost because his opponent’s ads, including billboards with pictures of him and Obama, as well as TV and radio ads, and last-minute phone bursts, convinced many voters that he has been a party-line Democratic insider all these years." What an irony! Feingold has always been of an independent cast of mind, and it surely would not be a trauma for him to bolt the party. Ralph Nader, having rendered his remarkable service to the country, having endured torrents of undeserved abuse from progressives, should hand the torch to Feingold as a worthy heir to that great hero of Wisconsin, Robert La Follette.
The left must abandon the doomed ritual of squeaking timid reproaches to Obama, only to have the counselors at Obama’s elbow contemptuously dismiss them, as did Rahm Emanuel, who correctly divined their near-zero capacity for effective challenge. Two more years, then four more years, of the same downward slide, courtesy of bipartisanship and "working together"? No way. Run, Russ, Run!