The Dow Industrial Average is approaching 18,000. Job growth in November hit a fifteen year high. Unemployment is below 6%. Gasoline prices are approaching $2.50 per gallon. And we are finally making progress in achieving universal health care – first proposed by Harry Truman over 60 years ago.
By any objective measure the Obama Administration has been a success.
This is especially true by comparison to our sister economies of Western Europe, which have consistently teetered on the brink of resurgent recession.
Post the 2008 economic meltdown there was a major split on economic policy. Western Europeans and most American Conservatives argued for a policy of austerity. American Liberals rallied with the newly-elected President and implemented a policy of economic stimulus.
Six years later there can be little doubt as to which was the wiser course of action.
Nevertheless the President has been the object of vilification to an extent unseen before in modern times. The recent midterm elections saw candidates from his own party seeking to distance themselves from him at almost every turn.
How do we account for this pattern of policy success and election and re-election of the chief executive while simultaneously witnessing two midterm reversals of fortune and a pervasive feeling that we are on the wrong path?
It has its inception almost immediately following President Obama’s first inauguration with a meeting of Republican leaders to adopt a “just say no” approach to all of his initiatives.
While this approach failed to stymie the initial stimulus plan and adoption of the Affordable Care Act (the latter by the slimmest of margins), it has since succeeded in virtually all other respects.
The initial Republican policy of “just say no” was quickly joined by the voice of conservative media, led by Fox News as well as Rush Limbaugh and his cadre of reactionary opinion-molders. These voices, led by Fox News, gave rise prominence of the Tea Party movement and its initial coalescence in opposition to the ACA. Their fear-mongering about “death panels” along with charges of massive waste in the stimulus plan led to the first reversal in the 2010 midterm elections that gave Republicans control of the House.
The emergence of the Tea Party movement gave a voice to others with even more regressive goals motivated by three fundamental factors.
First was the long-standing element of racism inherent in many Americans, most notably the lowest income and lower middle income elements of society. Coupled with the Republican and Tea Party successes in 2010 in many state legislatures, this gave rise to partisan redistricting enhancing their stranglehold on local dominance and accelerated adoption of a variety of voter ID laws designed to limit minority, youth and elderly access to the polls.
Second was the backlash among many evangelicals, fundamentalists and hardcore male supremacists against feminism. This was most pronounced in the area of abortion, giving rise to an unprecedented number of bills at both the Federal and state level to restrict access to the rights initially granted by the Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision.
Third, and related in many ways to the preceding two, was a growing fear of the loss of privilege among white males that they had enjoyed since the founding of the republic. This gained expression through the largely unchallenged, indeed often unrecognized, preservation and enhancement of financial perks that exempted large financial institutions from meaningful penalties for causing, and reaping benefits from, the financial collapse of 2008. In addition, it accelerated the accretion of wealth at the highest income levels exacerbating the income disparities between the richest and poorest to levels unseen since the 1920’s.
Despite these gains, the “new” conservative coalition was unable to turn the tide in the 2012 election. While it maintained control of the House it could not overcome the Democratic voter turnout effort and the perception that the Republican candidate was a champion of the financial elite. Nevertheless, more extreme voices were added to the mix such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
In the midst of this, the degree of Obama Derangement Syndrome reached new heights. In addition to the ongoing attacks over fast and furious, the IRS targeting of political interest groups and, of course, Benghazi, any chance of new legislative initiatives reached an absolute standstill. Despite the fact that virtually all elements of these “scandals” were eventually discredited, they live on among those who refuse to accept the facts. Efforts to add to economic stimulus through infrastructure spending went nowhere. And attempts to move forward on the issue of immigration were cut short by the refusal of House Speaker Boehner to allow a vote on a bipartisan immigration bill approved by the Senate.
Simultaneously, the obstructionist tactics of the conservative majority began to have an ever-increasing impact on foreign policy. The longstanding tradition of politics stopping at the water’s edge went by the boards. Whether in Georgia, Libya, Syria or the Ukraine, the ability of the President, or his Secretary of State, to act in the international arena was severely damaged by being relentlessly undercut by domestic criticism.
Despite the fact that the Republican shutdown of the government had cost the U.S. its credit rating and millions, if not billions, of dollars, despite the fact that the ACA had succeeded in substantially improving the conditions of millions of Americans and despite the fact that the stimulus program had already shown its success, the convergence of the three factors outlined above, combined with the failure of the Democrats to put forward a unified message, the 2014 midterms were a disaster.
The races at both state and national levels were characterized by an increased level of fear of change. There was an increased fear of the loss of white male privilege. There was a demonstrable “war on women”. There was an increased element of racism, perhaps most notably demonstrated in the early defeat of former house majority leader Eric Cantor in his primary race, primarily as a result of his perceived position on immigration reform. And all of this was compounded by the failure of the Democrats to address, not only their successes, but any vision for the future. All of this led to no small amount of rejoicing by those at Fox News and in the conservative echo chamber.
Perhaps no truer words have been spoken about the current state of Republican affairs than those recently uttered by Jeb Bush; you have to “lose the primary to win the general”.
Despite their gerrymandering of political districts, the “new” conservatives do not have a message that is capable of winning numerous local primaries while leaving them in a position to win a national election.
In the meantime, the current Democratic coalition must realize that it has a solid foundation upon which to build.
It has eschewed the politics of racism. It has supported the rights of women. It has embraced science over superstition.
It must embrace the successes of the Obama Presidency while acknowledging that its shortcomings are not failures but short-term concessions.
If Hillary Clinton is to be the party’s nominee, she has to step outside the realm of safely mincing her words. She has to realize that Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the voices of the future of the party.
America cannot tolerate for much longer the dominance of its politics by an oligarchic ruling class and the ruinous influence of their massive ability to shape policy through financial dominance of elections at all levels.
Democrats should allow the “new” conservatives to focus on the hopeless task of herding the stray cats that they have let out of the bag. They should turn their attention to the reality that change takes time and is incremental. The 2016 election will position a new president to begin formulating policies that will set the stage for a new census in 2020. That census will provide the opportunity to fundamentally reshape the future of the American electoral map.