Blame Obama for Democrats’ Problems

by Randy Shaw on October 19, 2010

Yes, George W. Bush and the Republican Party drove the economy into a deep ditch. True, Republican obstructionism weakened the 2009 stimulus package and derailed other key initiatives. And we have all learned how the United States government has a dysfunctional structure that allows a small political minority to prevent any real change other than major tax cuts. But that all being said, Democrats face the loss of the House in November because President Obama spent nearly his entire first year playing “bipartisanship” with those out to destroy him. As much as many of us cheered Obama’s election and still admire many of his skills, the sad reality is that his failure to aggressively push for change in 2009 is the chief cause of the celebrated enthusiasm gap.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why the political environment has so dramatically changed since October 2008. And I’ve concluded that, accounting for all of the factors outside Barack Obama’s control, the bottom line is that he badly damaged the Democratic Party brand through his own actions.

It was not Speaker Nancy Pelosi who played footsy with Republicans and conservative Democratic Senators for much of 2009; nor was it Pelosi or her progressive allies who backed Obama’s decision to escalate the unwinnable war in Afghanistan.

Nor was it progressives who urged Obama to promote bipartisanship with Republicans publicly committed to his failure. In contrast to what occurred during Bill Clinton’s first two years, many progressives were very outspoken in criticizing Obama’s failure to move quickly to create transformative change.

Putting the Left on the Defensive

Obama’s own actions have put the progressive wing of the Democratic Party on the defensive, a position that seemed unimaginable two years ago. He did this in main two ways.

First, because Obama has been under relentless partisan attacks by Republicans and right-wing interests, progressives have spent considerable time defending decisions – like the final version of the health care bill – that they question among themselves. Instead of activists proudly promoting the historic achievement of universal health care, they are left justifying the late 2014 start date, lack of public option and lack of strong cost-control mechanisms.

To be clear, Obama deserves enormous credit for enacting health insurance reform. But the measure did not become a positive symbol of a more activist and humane government, and is not the linchpin for activating the grassroots base for 2010.

Second, Obama’s failure to even attempt to be a transformative President put progressives on the defensive in dealing with the 2008 electoral base. For example, think how immigrant rights activists defended Obama’s inaction on immigration reform before realizing in 2010 that they needed to publicly challenge his failure in order to get his attention.

Or consider how SEIU and the AFL-CIO had to explain to members how the Employee Free Choice Act, said to be among labor’s top priorities, never even came to a floor vote in Congress despite unions spending at least $120 million on the November 2008 elections. As I wrote in September 2009 following Obama’s speech at the AFL-CIO Convention, labor leaders trusted the President to match his positive words with actions; given the President’s failure to deliver, union members are among the group’s most impacted by the enthusiasm gap.

Finally, Obama and his close advisors themselves sought to put progressives on the defensive by attacking a group Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called “the professional left.” As my colleague Paul Hogarth recently observed, no such criticism has been directed at the conservative Democrats “actively colluding with Republicans to hurt the Administration.”

Remember when many of us praised Obama for stating that if he understood that he should be criticized if he did not fulfill his mandate for change? Well, when he got that criticism, he and his close allies took it as disloyalty.

Lessons Unlearned

With Obama in full partisan campaign mode, it would be great to believe that he has stop trying to pacify his sworn enemies. But the evidence is not reassuring.

For example, it’s truly incredible that the Obama Administration is fighting the ruling striking down Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a policy overwhelming and strongly opposed by the Democratic base. Talk about low-hanging fruit – the court gave Obama an easy way to bring “Change” and he has rebuffed it.

And while I understand the economics of not wanting to halt all foreclosures, why would the Obama Administration publicly resist a nationwide moratorium three weeks before Election Day? Has the President’s team not seen how banks and lenders are pouring campaign money into Republicans?

In recent interviews, Obama insists that he has completed 70% of his campaign agenda. But when the other 30% includes the lack of immigration reform or climate change legislation, ongoing wars, a faltering economy, and nothing close to the major budget transformations that Reagan and George W. Bush accomplished in their first two years, that stated 70% figure holds far less political meaning.

It would be so much easier psychologically if Democrats could blame Republicans and corporate interests for the electoral enthusiasm gap. It’s distressing to think that an historic opportunity for real change in 2009 and 2010 fell victim to self-inflicted wounds, but it is hard to reach a contrary conclusion.

Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century is now available in paperback.

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