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.