08.09.11

Debt Buries Man of Hope

The president sought to calm markets and voters after S&P’s U.S. debt downgrade triggered turmoil, but Eleanor Clift says his call for common sense was a far cry from his 2008 message of hope.

President Obama faced an imposing figure Monday as he tried to reassure Americans that the U.S. economy will rebound and overcome a downgrading of its credit rating: the 2008 version of himself.

The president’s pitch Monday—all that’s needed is a little “common sense and compromise”—was a far cry from the soaring rhetoric and optimism of his candidacy three years ago. And the first voters after Monday’s statement—Wall Street investors—weren’t entirely sold. The Dow Jones average fell 634 points Monday, with Obama’s words doing little to stop the downward momentum.

Still, Obama declined to join the chorus of critics assailing the Standard & Poor’s rating agency as misguided in its assessment, instead expressing the hope that the U.S. going from triple-A to double-A would motivate Congress to find a “grand bargain” that would reform both entitlement programs and taxes. And that optimism could spell a political benefit in the long term.

“He was reassuring—that was the aim,” says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster.

The economy will have an outsized impact on next year’s election, but the real question, most analysts agree, is not whether it’s good or bad, but whether people feel it’s getting better or worse. More than a year from now, when voters go to the polls in November 2012, if they see light at the end of the tunnel, Obama will be in relatively good shape. “If there isn’t, then it becomes a pitched battle, hand-to-hand combat, trench warfare,” Mellman says.

A reelection campaign is typically a referendum on the incumbent, but it doesn’t have to be, says Mellman. He’s speaking from experience. He just went through one of the most bruising campaigns in the country with Democrat Harry Reid in Nevada facing Tea Party challenger Sharron Angle. “We turned that from a referendum into not just a choice but into a referendum on the other candidate,” Mellman says.

Right now, Obama is facing his toughest challenger, and that is the Obama of 2008 who inspired a nation with his call for “change you can believe in.”

Disappointed liberals are among Obama’s harshest critics. They feel he has given away too much to conservatives, and they don’t understand where his gifts of intellect and oratory are now that the country is looking to him for a bold plan forward that can take the economy out of the doldrums.

The dimming enthusiasm for Obama could have serious repercussions for his reelection if disappointed liberals, young people, and minorities don’t come out in the numbers they did in 2008. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, hosted a discussion Monday on “The African American Vote in 2012 and Beyond.” Among the panelists was Jamal Simmons with the Raben Group, a public-relations firm that advocates for progressive policies. He said that right now Obama is being compared against the ideal progressive president imagined by his soaring rhetoric and promises of change, but once the campaign gets underway, “He’ll be compared against Mitt Romney, or Michele Bachmann, and that’s a very different conversation.”

One of the questions before the panel: With persistently high unemployment and continuing economic woes within the black community, is there room for the right to make inroads? The general consensus was that there is “no savior on the Republican side,” and that Obama could be confident of the support of more than 90 percent of African-Americans.

The dimming enthusiasm for Obama could have serious repercussions for his reelection.

African Americans, together with liberals and young people, won’t desert Obama, but unless the president finds a better way to connect with their hopes and dreams, and still their fears, he could come up short on Election Day. Karl Rove has already penned an analysis in The Wall Street Journal saying even a 1 percent drop in black turnout in North Carolina, a state that Obama carried in 2008, would wipe out the president’s margin of victory two-and-a-half times over.

With Congress in recess until after Labor Day, the proposals Obama is relying on to spur the recovery continue to languish, uncertain to get a vote despite his calls for urgency. They include an infrastructure bank, an extension of the payroll-holiday tax cut for working people, and three trade deals that are hung up over labor rights. All are worthy proposals but far from enough to capture a weary nation’s imagination. Given the scope of the jobs crisis, there is a dearth of ideas. “We’re working on it,” says Jared Bernstein, an economist who until recently was at the White House advising Vice President Joe Biden.

Now with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Bernstein is circulating a proposal dubbed FAST: Fix America’s Schools Today. The average public school building is 40 years old, with many much older, and repairs have been deferred by cash-strapped local governments. Bringing nearly 100,000 schools up to standard and “greening them up” would create some 10,000 jobs for every billion dollars spent.

Democrats are searching for the Big Idea that can carry an election. School construction, says one skeptic, “might appeal to some editorial writers, but nobody’s going to say, ‘Wow, I’m going to the barricades for that.' It’s not an automatic bell ringer.” If that’s the standard, it could be a very long election year.