The market is tanking. Consumer confidence is collapsing, car sales are falling, and now the pumped-up housing market is also losing steam despite mortgage rates hitting their lowest point in five years. Meanwhile, jobless claims are also rising but Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, he of the big pain in the ass on health care, won’t allow his party to extend benefits about to expire. Is it any wonder that, finally, Barack Obama can (finally) be found out on the hustings handing out a little red meat? Obama complained that his opponents “think that our economy will do better if we just let the banks or the oil companies or the insurance industry make their own rules… They still believe that even after the Wall Street crash, even after the BP oil well blew, that we should keep a hands-off attitude.” The president paid particular attention to the remarks of House Republican leader John Boehner, who likened the rather mild fin/reg legislation to “killing an ant with a nuclear weapon,” something, hardly coincidentally, that could also be found on DNC ads running on the Web. “He compared the financial crisis to an ant,” Mr. Obama said. “That is the same financial crisis that led to the loss of nearly 8 million jobs. Same crisis that cost people their homes, their life savings. He can’t be that out of touch with the struggles of American families. And if he is, then he’s got to come here to Racine and ask people what they think.”
Obama needs to get his base excited again and the legislative record, as impressive as it is, ain’t going to do it. At the same time, the dude just doesn’t do “mad” very well.
It’s about time. Actually, it’s well past time. According to the most recent Gallup tracking poll, by “an average 10 percentage-point margin since March, 45 percent to 35 percent, independent registered voters have consistently preferred the Republican to the Democrat when asked which congressional candidate they would vote for in their district.” This number, the poll’s authors add, “has been generally consistent over this time, with the gap in favor of Republicans increasing slightly since March.” What is most worrisome, however is what pundits like to call the “enthusiasm gap.” Not only are independents trending Republican, Republicans are mad as hell and eager to vote out the Satanic Stalinist/Fascist/Muslim/Kenyan that fate (and ACORN) mysteriously placed in the White House. What’s more, some of the polls that showed Democratic candidates in OK shape may be entirely made up. If, for instance, Research 2000 was really a fiction-writing team rather than a poling outfit, then Iowa’s Charles Grassley is likely going to have an easier time with his Democratic challenger, attorney Roxanne Conlin, than party strategists had been led to believe. In other words, things are likely even worse than they look.
It’s not as if Obama and the Democrats do not have significant accomplishments upon which to base a national campaign. They did actually save the economy from going down the toilet. They did pass the first major expansion of the American health-care system in nearly half a century. (And a recent poll shows the new law is now supported by the public by 48-41.) He will get a financial-regulation bill, yet another accomplishment that has eluded presidents for decades. But none of these achievements turned out to be all that satisfying to the kind of rank-and-file voters that Democrats must turn out if they are to avoid a landslide next November. Unlike say, the sweeping legislative agendas of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, Obama went into Congress ready to compromise on whatever deal he could call “bipartisan,” and in doing so, he got taken for a ride. His priorities were watered down to the point that his own supporters had to hold their noses just to vote for them—witness Russ Feingold and Maria Cantwell’s withholding their support from the bank-friendly fin/reg legislation—and made enemies of the people he tried to befriend. And what did he get for it? Republican “maverick” Lindsey Graham attended 183 meetings to negotiating a Senate version of the “cap and trade” bill passed by the House. The White House had him over 19 times. But in the end he decided not to go along, after getting much of what he wanted from the Democrats—and, from the grassroots’ perspective, all but ruining the bill. He decided not to go along with any new immigration legislation also. Meanwhile, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, etc., performed a similar dance all over the health-care bill and Bob Corker messed with the fin/reg legislation, only to decide, “Nahh.”
So Obama won a national election back when we all could believe he was our own private Superman—whatever that happened to be. (I’m not kidding. I bought my kid an Obama-as-Superman T-shirt at the inauguration.) Young people in particular are likely to be disillusioned, (and therefore disaffected). Now that we know he’s smart, savvy, go-along-to-get-along kind of guy who looks a lot like George W. Bush on national security issues and (a slightly reformed) Alan Greenspan on economic ones, it’s rather hard to get excited about the coming congressional elections. After all, we already have a black president, and as B.B. King sang, “ The Thrill Is Gone.”
Obama needs to get his base excited again and the legislative record, as impressive as it is in historical context, ain’t going to do it. At the same time, the dude just doesn’t do “mad” very well. At this point, Mr. “No Drama” has got one thing going, and one thing only: His opponents are nuts. It’s time he stopped playing nice and made the case to the American people. It’s not a matter of “talking sense,” as his negative exemplar, Adlai Stevenson, used to say. Rather it’s a matter of letting them keep talking their nonsense, but making sure everybody gets the word. Was the near-collapse of the global economy an “ant hill?” Does BP deserve an apology from the rest of us? Should insurance companies be able to discriminate on the basis of prior conditions? Rand Paul wants to roll back the clock to the pre-civil-rights era and Sharron Angle wants to fast-forward to the End of Days. If Obama doesn’t start preaching, his party might as well start praying.
Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.