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.