Democrats, Don't Despair

Things look bad now, and the party will lose seats this fall. But the economy will bounce back, Democrats will be united—and faith in government can be restored.

01.25.10 12:00 AM ET

Democrats win elections by convincing Americans that government can work. Republicans win elections by convincing them that it can’t. Right now, the GOP is winning that argument. To resurrect his presidency, Barack Obama must change that.

A year ago, most Americans were hopeful that Obama could invigorate government, and that an invigorated government could improve their lives. According to a January 2009 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Americans were 11 points more likely to say “government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people” than they were to say that “government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals.” During the Bush administration, after all, people had seen what happens when business is left to handle financial regulation and individuals are left to handle hurricane relief. They wanted government to do more—and believed they would benefit if it did.

Even if he encounters further setbacks, Obama doesn’t have to worry about a primary challenge (that decision to get Hillary out of the Senate looks smarter every day).

The problem is that government has done more, and Americans haven’t felt any benefit. That’s not the same as saying that they haven’t benefited. There’s a pretty strong argument that without Obama’s stimulus package—which funneled money to cities and states, thus allowing them to avoid truly brutal budget cuts—and without the epic action by the Federal Reserve, and yes, without the bailouts of Wall Street and the automakers, that Americans would be feeling far more pain than they currently are. But politically, it’s hard to win elections by telling people that although things are terrible, you kept them from being worse. Franklin Roosevelt didn’t have to convince Americans that the country would have been in a depression had he not enacted the early New Deal; he took office with the unemployment rate at 25 percent, and by 1936 had cut it in half. Obama, by contrast, took office when the unemployment rate was about 7.5 percent, but many economists feared it would rise dramatically as the nation’s financial system imploded. The Obama administration helped keep the financial system from imploding, and so the unemployment rate has risen to “only” 10 percent—none of which is leading Americans to throw the White House bouquets.

Mark McKinnon: Can Plouffe Save Obama’s Bacon?To make matters worse, the things Obama has done to stave off economic collapse have been ugly. Americans don’t like bailouts and they don’t like massive debt. They might have swallowed their disgust had those actions prevented economic misery. But instead, all Obama’s policies have done is prevent the greater theoretical misery that many economists believe Americans would have experienced had nothing been done. If the fire department floods your house with water yet the blaze still torches your living room, it’s cold comfort to hear that the damage would have been even worse had they never arrived.

Republicans understand this. For all their claims that Obama should be focusing more attention on the economy, their real position is that he should have done less: no bailouts, no big stimulus, less-aggressive monetary policy. The GOP basically believes that if the fire department hadn’t come and messed everything up, the fire would be burning itself out on its own—without all that nasty water damage. And at this point, the White House can’t prove them wrong.

So what should Obama do? First, he shouldn’t give up on health care. In the short term, the public’s diminished faith in government has turned Americans against his proposed reforms. But in the long term, restoring that faith requires showing Americans that government can address the health-care challenge. By passing Social Security and Medicare, Democrats proved that government could tangibly improve people’s lives, which increased trust in government, and helped the party of government—the Democrats—win election after election. Another successful expansion of the welfare state could have a similarly profound effect in the decades to come. Conversely, if Democrats fail, it will just validate the Republican argument that government can’t improve people’s lives—and in that environment, the party of government will usually lose.

Secondly, if Republicans prevent Obama from passing any more big legislation, he should do what Bill Clinton did after 1994: Find small but resonant ways of using his executive authority to show that government really can improve people’s lives. The reason that Clinton’s micro-initiatives—from school uniforms to the V-chip—helped resuscitate his presidency was that they belied the Republican claim that activist government undermined people’s quality of life. In small ways, Clinton showed that activist government clearly improved people’s quality of life, and the public noticed. Clinton also baited the Gingrich Congress into attacking those elements of government that people already valued—from Medicare and Social Security to education spending and environmental protection. If Republicans win big this November, Obama may be able to effectively pick such fights again.

Finally, Democrats shouldn’t despair. Far more than in 1994, the party’s current woes are a product of the business cycle. Although people no longer identify as strongly with him on the issues, Obama remains personally popular—certainly more popular than any of the Republican leaders in Congress. He’s not bedeviled by many of the cultural issues—from gun control to gays in the military to crime—that gave Bill Clinton fits. And demographically, the country is still moving the Democrats’ way (something that will be clearer in 2012, because minorities turn out at higher rates in presidential elections). Finally, even if he encounters further setbacks, Obama doesn’t have to worry about a primary challenge (that decision to get Hillary Clinton out of the Senate looks smarter every day), which means that despite their current squabbles, Democrats will be fairly united in 2012.

Most importantly, a stronger economy will strengthen public faith in government, and in Barack Obama. The economy may not rebound fast enough to save Democrats from big losses in November, but it will probably rebound in the next couple of years. And when it does, everything Obama has done over the last year will look better. Americans always distrust government until it delivers the goods. Obama’s challenge is to show that it still can.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris , will be published by HarperCollins in June.