Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The End of 'Recovery Summer'

The summer of 2010 is coming to a close — and thus, I suppose, "Recovery Summer" also is ending.

But, while the administration may have had high hopes when it launched "Recovery Summer," things seem to have flatlined, at best, and a lot of folks just aren't feeling it.

They aren't all Barack Obama's political opponents, either. Some of them are like Velma Hart (see video), an Obama supporter who told the president that she was "exhausted" from having to defend him and his administration while she has seen little evidence of improvement.

Hart joked about having thought that she was past the "hot dogs and beans" stage in her life, then meekly asked Obama if that was the "new reality." If so, she seemed prepared to defend that — as if that's the way it is supposed to be.

But it may be hard for millions of unemployed Americans to see how her life has been affected by the recession. She has a high–paying government job, with all the benefits it provides, and she and her husband are putting their two daughters through private school — which is a choice that they made (as opposed to losing your job, which, in most cases, is a decision that is made for, not by, someone).

Perhaps they have had to make some sacrifices — most Americans, after all, have had to make some concession to the bad economy, even if it has been something as modest as not eating out as often or going to the movies as frequently.

If that's all that Hart's family must do to weather this economic storm, though, they're undoubtedly a lot better off than most blacks in America. Bob Herbert writes in the New York Times about how "black voters ... have been hammered disproportionately by the recession and largely taken for granted by the Democratic Party."

The Democrats' neglect of their black base "is likely to translate into lower turnout among blacks this fall," Herbert writes.

Well, it wouldn't surprise me. Black voters haven't exactly been turning out en masse in this year's primaries the way they did in 2008. Of course, neither are young voters or liberal voters. Without them, Obama could not have won the election in 2008, and it is highly unlikely that the members of his party will succeed without them this year.

It really must be difficult for the Obama apologists, and it's only going to get tougher. We're down to six weeks until the midterm elections. If there is no truly dramatic improvement in the economy between now and November 2, the only thing that can possibly (but not absolutely) reverse the Democrats' fortunes would be an international crisis.

And no one — other than the Democrats who are all but certain to be defeated in November — wants that.

But those who all too eagerly embraced an imprecise call for "change" are realizing, I think, that, in 2008, many people attached many interpretations to that call — and darn few are satisfied with the results, no matter how much Obama may protest that his solutions are long term.

In hindsight, a number of things should be clear, but hindsight is always 20/20, they say. All of which makes it even more ironic that Jane Mayer writes in the New Yorker that former Vice President Walter Mondale sees many similarities between the Obama presidency and the one in which Mondale played a key role, the presidency of Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.

Now, I voted for President Carter in 1980. It was the first presidential election in which I was old enough to vote, and I believed that President Carter had been doing a good job in spite of the obstacles that kept being thrown his way. I was also deeply suspicious — and, I still think, rightfully so — of Ronald Reagan's policies.

But I was in the minority that year.

When Mondale tells Mayer that the American people "just turned against us — same as with Obama," I know exactly what he's talking about. I lived through it. And it has had a profound influence on how I perceive political movements in America.

Mondale is candid about the things that Carter did wrong — and the lessons Obama and the other members of his party should have learned from that experience 30 years ago but apparently didn't.

The former vice president does seem to have learned from the Clinton experience, noting that Obama "needs to get rid of those teleprompters, and connect. He's smart as hell. He can do it. Look right into those cameras and tell people he's hurting right along with them."

In other words, make sure the voters know that he feels their pain. With his professorial demeanor, he often comes across as a cold fish — which was one of the criticisms of Carter the engineer.

Carter, Mondale reminded Mayer, had an impressive list of legislative and diplomatic accomplishments, but they didn't seem to help him with the voters. And his image wasn't enhanced by his handling of Congress.

In all, Mondale favors a more hardball approach. "[T]he idea of turning things over to Congress — that doesn't work even when you own Congress," Mondale said, and he spoke from experience. Democrats enjoyed large congressional majorities in the post–Watergate years. "You have to ride 'em."

And he was critical of Obama's quixotic quest for bipartisanship. "You should explain clearly what you want, and, if [the Republicans] oppose you, attack them for it."

Mondale is somewhat encouraging in his assessment of Obama's future prospects. Unlike 1980, when President Carter was challenged for the nomination by Ted Kennedy, Mondale does not envision anything like that for Obama.

But I'm not sure about that. The National Bureau of Economic Research says the recession ended more than a year ago, but millions of Americans remain unemployed 15 months later. If things get worse in 2011, it isn't hard for me to imagine a Democrat challenging the president for the nomination — either seriously (i.e. Kennedy) or symbolically (i.e. Pat Buchanan).

That really isn't the worst of it for the administration.

As Catherine Rampell observes in the New York Times, "The announcement also implies that any contraction that might lie ahead would be a separate and distinct recession, and one that the Obama administration could not claim to have inherited."

Well, that's not really true. The Obama administration could still claim — although not plausibly — to have inherited it. Maybe they could get away with it. Probably not, though.

And the race card probably wouldn't work, either. And "change" can't be brought back for an encore because the voters already have seen how that one worked.

I guess the strategy will depend on how much Obama and the Democrats are forced to neglect the economy while trying to defend the tenuous turf they won in their extended skirmish over health care reform.

Because Republicans are making no secret of their desire to chip away at, if not repeal outright, the health care reform law.

Such talk was the fodder of jokes a year ago. It's no joking matter for Democrats today.

And things are looking bad for Democrats in places they never would have expected a year ago. Such as:
  • West Virginia, where the state's voters must select a replacement for late Sen. Robert Byrd. Public Policy Polling says the Republican candidate leads the state's popular Democratic governor by three percentage points in a poll of likely voters.

  • Wisconsin, where a Daily Kos/PPP poll of likely voters shows the Republican challenger holding a double–digit lead over three–term Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
Many races in states and districts are volatile this year, more volatile than just about anyone predicted 18 months ago.

I remember, after Obama had been elected and Democrats were giddy with their victory, there was plenty of talk about which great American president Obama's administration would most resemble.

Not whether he would be up to the enormous challenge he faced. It was taken for granted that he would be.

Would he be another Lincoln? Or another Washington? Or another FDR? In some scenarios, he was going to be another JFK because, like Kennedy, he broke a barrier that many thought could never be broken.

But we're almost halfway through Obama's term, and the question must be asked by Democrats when they ponder the 2012 campaign. It can no longer be avoided.

Is it possible? In an electoral context, could he be another Jimmy Carter?

1 comment:

Glenn Atias said...

Your analysis is thoughtful, but with all due respects I think misses some key points.

We needed someone to come in Jan 20 2009 and make major structural changes. Mostly along the lines of Austrian economic theory:

1) Reign in the Federal Reserve from blowing up one bubble after another by printing and pumping cheap money into the economy.

2) Reverse the corporate tax structure - instead of 40% tax on profits onshore and 0% offshore, make changes such as to bring production back home - we lost 1 of 3 manufacturing jobs overseas since year 2000.

3) Massive decrease in government spending and regulation.

What we got instead was a far left ideologue uncompromisingly shoving a big government agenda down our throats that we don't want.

And he goes and shoves through the biggest entitlement since Medicare at the worst possible time in our history to do it.

An utterly incompetent, absolutely tone-deaf, complete out of step with country, it's mood, what economics are needed.

In short, the greatest unfolding debacle in the history of our nation.

That's who we got.

BTW, I just missed the 1980 election by a few months - had to wait until '84 :)