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Can Obama Rise Again?

Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

Whatever else we might say about Rahm Emanuel, we must grant that he knows how to make a timely exit. He left his advisory position at the Clinton White House in October 1998, just as the House impeachment hearings were impending, joining the boutique investment firm of the late Bruce Wasserstein and, over the next two and a half years, taking home an estimated $18 million. This year, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, famous for what the Beltway press typically refers to as his “roguish charm” without ever quite explaining what behavior on his part justifies the second of those two words, again chose October to leave the White House, with evident electoral devastation looming, to pursue his dream of becoming mayor of Chicago.

Toward the end of a dreadful election week in which the Democrats lost around sixty-five House seats (a few outcomes were still pending), the largest off-year thumping of either party since 1938, it seemed to dawn on some beleaguered White House aides that Emanuel’s timing wasn’t very amusing, and they went (namelessly) to Richard Wolffe, the former Newsweek journalist who has become an inside chronicler for Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast of goings-on in the Obama administration, to remind interested parties that some in the White House

shake their heads in disbelief that Emanuel would bolt at precisely the juncture when the Democrats needed to shape their strategy and message during the homestretch of what everyone knew would be the toughest election cycle in years.
“It was Rahm who always said, ‘We’ve just got to put points on the board,’ and that’s why we have a transactional [i.e., a deal-making presidency],” said one former colleague. “The only problem is that Obama is not a transactional politician. It was Rahm’s strategy and then he leaves a month before the election for his own personal political career. It’s extraordinary.”1

Emanuel’s departure, if not its timing, is understandable—the mayoralty of Chicago doesn’t open up to a non-Daley very often. Still, it is worth noting after the Democrats’ debacle because, as Ari Berman’s lively book Herding Donkeys reminds us, Emanuel was instrumental in building the Democratic House majority that collapsed on November 2. It will bring no joy to either Emanuel or Howard Dean, the bitterest enemies in Washington in 2006, when Dean chaired the Democratic National Committee and Emanuel the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (“dee-triple-cee,” or simply “d-trip” to the truly initiated), for them to know that they will be forever linked in the story of building the short-lived Democratic majority of 2006–2010—and in its demise.

Berman, who with his editors (and, to be fair, many of us) seems to have anticipated a longer Democratic spring than was actually the case, has fallen victim to events—always a risk with a current-affairs book. The story of how Dean, the hero of Berman’s book, used his celebrated “fifty-state strategy” to make the Democratic Party competitive in places where the local parties had all but quit even having bake sales is likely not a tale that many liberals are now in a mood to read. And yet it is instructive, in some ways especially now. The story provides a reminder that even with the pummeling of November 2, today’s Democratic Party is in fact competitive in more states and districts than it was in 2004.

Emanuel and Dean represented different wings of the Democratic Party—Emanuel more a New Democratic centrist, Dean a more traditional liberal, at least on the national stage. They also held correspondingly conflicting philosophies, with Emanuel believing that the way to revivify the party during the Bush years was to attract more moderates, and Dean putting emphasis on energizing the liberal base. In addition, they were driven by different interests: Emanuel, as DCCC chairman with a constituency of cash-starved candidates, wanted to win elections now; Dean, the DNC chairman with a constituency of state and local operatives, wanted to do long-term party building.

It was this third point that led to their fierce disputes in 2006 over money, which were regularly leaked to the press and usually by people on Emanuel’s side of the argument: Emanuel wanted the DNC to give millions to candidates with no strings attached, but Dean—atypically for a party chairman, especially one so distrusted by his own party’s establishment figures, meaning chiefly the people around the Clintons, and the Clintons themselves—would not give in. Berman writes:

Dean and his aides feared that Rahm would spend the DNC’s money on expensive and often frivolous TV ads, which did little to build the party and conveniently lined the pockets of the same select group of increasingly discredited Washington consultants. “There’s frustration inside the Beltway because I want to do things differently,” Dean said at the time, “but if we don’t do things differently, we’ll be extinct as a party.”

And so Dean agreed to give party money to Emanuel and Chuck Schumer, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, only if they would agree that the spending had a long-term as well as a short-term purpose.

As intensely as Dean and Emanuel disliked each other, their agendas meshed in spite of themselves. Emanuel was recruiting competitive candidates in places like western North Carolina, where the centrist former college quarterback star Heath Shuler ran and won. Meanwhile, Dean was funneling seed money to moribund state and local party affiliates in some of those same areas so that they could hire organizers. Berman spent time in western North Carolina’s Polk County, where the driver of a pick-up truck yelled to Margaret Johnson, a former Air Force nurse who took it upon herself to help reenergize the party: “Lady, don’t you know there ain’t no Democrats in Polk County?” To which Johnson replied, “Well, there are now.”

The result was a Democratic Party that, across the country, annoyed local political reporters who couldn’t get accustomed to the notion that they might actually have to cover the Democrat this time. The efforts of Dean and Emanuel culminated, in 2006, in a thirty-one-seat Democratic gain in the House. The little-known facts, which Berman relays, are that Emanuel’s preferred candidates actually won only about half their races, and the Democrats could have had more wins if Emanuel hadn’t deserted some candidates he saw as too liberal. In any case, the thirty-one seats gained that year gave Democrats control of the House for the first time in twelve years and made Nancy Pelosi the speaker. The twenty-one additional seats added in 2008 along similar strategic lines gave the party the gaudy majority of 255–178 that has just now crumbled.

Most of those seats were won by Blue Dogs, the centrists and conservatives who feared signing on to the Obama-Pelosi agenda. More than half of the Blue Dog coalition—twenty-eight members out of fifty-four—lost their seats on November 2. Many Democrats and liberals, including Berman, are now saying in essence: good riddance.2 Cathartic though that may be, the fact is that if Democrats tried to rely on liberals only, they couldn’t have more than 180 or 190 seats and would never win a majority. They need moderates to have a chance to govern. So the question that confronts congressional Democrats now is, how many of those lost sixty-five seats can they realistically expect to win back someday?

The conventional wisdom in Washington is not many, but the conventional wisdom is always captive to the moment’s passions (and susceptible to aggressive and effective conservative spin). In 2008, Obama won twenty-seven of the sixty-five districts that were lost in the election, so those twenty-seven might be regained one day under more optimal political conditions. Beyond those, there are a number of others—in the Rocky Mountain region and the Southwest, for example, and in Ohio and Indiana—where the Democratic candidates ran respectably but were simply overwhelmed by the tidal wave.

By my reckoning, twenty or perhaps two dozen of the sixty-five lost seats fit the label “natural Republican district,” the phrase often heard on election-night television coverage. But about forty to forty-five are at least contestable for the Democrats in some future election under different circumstances, and a few more than that might be winnable under such unusually favorable conditions as those prevailing in 2006 and 2008.

This, as Berman suggests even without the benefit of analyzing this year’s results, is the fruit of the fifty-state strategy that Dean created and that Obama and his team drew on for the 2008 election: local Democratic organizations began fighting for the territory that the party of Al Gore and John Kerry and former party chairman Terry McAuliffe had clearly conceded. Add to that demographic changes—more Latinos, more young professionals spreading out into exurbs—that will continue to benefit Democrats in a number of swing districts. Democrats still hold districts in North Carolina and Arizona, for example, where they were barely even trying six years ago.

There is, however, only so much good news. If I’m right about the number of contestable seats, even if the Democrats won every one of them, the largest majority they could hope for would be around 230 to 205. With a much larger majority than that over these past two years, they passed a great deal of legislation in the House, but much of it was compromised. (The emissions targets in the cap-and-trade bill were very modest; the health care legislation had no public option.) And they did nothing about other liberal concerns such as labor law reform. A future Democratic House, then, will likely be less adventuresome than this one was. And in any case, my guess would be that it will take the Democrats a decade at least to regain control of the House, unless Republicans seriously overreach. The power of Republican money—with no limit on corporate contributions—and of the conservative propaganda machine will now be compounded by greater Republican control over the upcoming decennial redistricting process as a result of the GOP gains in governors’ mansions and statehouses. The new Republican majority will be tended with great and well-financed care.

As for the Senate, while Democrats kept GOP gains to just six this time, in 2012, twice as many incumbent Democrats will have to defend their seats as incumbent Republicans will. The odds are thus strong that Obama, if he is reelected, will be dealing with a Republican House and Senate.

One of the most dramatic voting-group swings of this election took place among independents. According to exit polls, they favored Republican candidates by eighteen points, 56 to 38 percent. Obama had carried these voters by eight percentage points in 2008, and Democrats had won them by 18 percent in 2006: a thirty-six point swing over four years.

If he is to be reelected, Obama must take action to win these voters back. Washington being what it is, pressure will mount on him—it’s already started—to “move to the center,” to “triangulate,” to attack the deficit, and to accept cuts to Medicare and Social Security. But at the same time, he faces a disgruntled and despairing left, which believes that he squandered an opportunity early in his tenure to chart a more uncompromisingly liberal course, especially on economic policy. Confronted as he was with a deep recession that could be largely blamed on the Bush Republicans, Obama should, in the view of some of his liberal critics, have tried, at least, to promote a much stronger economic stimulus and campaigned for it nationally.

Tomasky-2-120910.jpg
Michael Reynolds/epa/Corbis
House Republican leader John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell at a press conference after the election, November 3, 2010

Many liberals also believe that he has completely reneged on his campaign promises to limit executive power and reform the national security state. Thus, for the next two years he faces a dilemma: if he tilts too aggressively toward moderates, the left will head into 2012 even more discouraged; if he becomes more aggressively liberal, middle-of-the-road independent voters might stay with the Republicans.

Obama and his relations with the left is a story that has received only intermittent attention in the mainstream press, but in the liberal blogosphere it is a drama that is debated intensely on a daily and even hourly basis. High-profile websites have placed themselves strategically along the continuum. Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo rarely criticizes Obama from the left and keeps most of its focus on Republicans. The Huffington Post, in contrast, has heaped far more invective on Tim Geithner and Larry Summers than on Karl Rove or Sarah Palin or Mitch McConnell or Glenn Beck. Among quality journals, Harper’s Magazine, under the editorship of Roger D. Hodge, has most consistently attacked Obama from the left, headlining an article “Barack Hoover Obama” as far back as July 2009.

Hodge was fired by publisher John R. MacArthur back in January, but he has used his free time to keep the jeremiad alive. The Mendacity of Hope is a roundhouse punch at the notion that Obama is anything but a conventional corporate liberal, supine before the moneyed interests. Hodge is perhaps even angrier at Obama’s defenders than at Obama himself:

That Obama is in most respects better than George W. Bush, John McCain, Sarah Palin, or Joseph Stalin is beyond dispute and completely beside the point. Obama is judged not as a man but as a fable, a tale of moral uplift that redeems the sins of America’s shameful past. Even as many supporters begin to show their inevitable displeasure with his policies or his job performance and his poll numbers decline, to his liberal supporters the character and motivations of the president remain above question. He is a good man. I trust him to do the right thing.

Berman is a reporter who goes to places like Polk County, where one must observe the conditions that people trying to do politics in this country have to face. Hodge is a detached critic whose very purpose is to stand outside of the process entirely and not be bogged down by state and local matters. The world needs both kinds of observers, and Hodge grounds his critique in the kind of constitutional and intellectual history that is outside the purview of Berman’s work.

The “American liberalism” that Obama has in Hodge’s view betrayed is not the liberalism of Lyndon Johnson or John Kennedy or even Franklin Roosevelt, all of them fallen sinners to one degree or another, but the liberalism of James Madison, whom he venerates over the other Founders as the prime author of American small-r republican values and impulses. The virtues to be respected are restraint, checks and balances, suspicion of powerful interests, and fear of excessive factionalism. Hodge has much to say about Obama’s corporate backers, his weak economic prescriptions, his cave-in to the major lobbies during the health care process, and his apostasies on civil liberties and national security; but he frequently recurs to early American controversies, such as the debate over the founding of the first national bank to underscore Obama’s betrayal and his unfortunate affinity for the principles of the iniquitous Alexander Hamilton.

That Obama will only rarely live up to Madisonian principles is beyond dispute, but in my view it is completely beside the point. President Madison himself, who approved the second national bank in 1816, likely did not live up to them from time to time. We are, to put it mildly, very far removed from the republic our founders envisioned. Meanwhile it does matter, profoundly, that Obama is in most respects a better leader than John McCain, particularly in his awareness of people who are less well off. Perhaps Hodge and I will not be seriously threatened personally no matter who governs this country (and we may be better off under Republicans in the strictest pecuniary sense). But the difference between the two parties matters a great deal, not only on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, but for poor people and minimum-wage workers and working- and middle-class people, who have gained considerably more under Democratic administrations over the past half-century than they have under Republicans, as the political scientist Larry Bartels showed in Unequal Democracy.3

A more persuasive work of dissent might at least have taken account of the pressures under which the new administration had to work and then analyzed its specific choices at specific moments, and made a plausible case that a more liberal path might have succeeded. Michael Hirsh’s Capital Offense, for example, which is mainly concerned with the decades-long capitulation of politicians of both parties to Wall Street, discusses the Obama administration in its closing chapters and is harshly critical of Geithner, Summers, and Obama himself in several respects.4 Not only Hirsh but such writers as Paul Krugman make serious criticisms of Obama from the left, starting with his economic team. But Hirsch’s analysis is much more tethered than Hodge’s book to the actual choices Obama could have made. Emanuel, whose sharp disdain for traditional liberals is well known, would be a strong candidate for such condemnation as well. Even if this administration can accomplish only a fraction of what its supporters on the left had hoped, there is no excuse for a chief of staff ridiculing those well-intentioned liberals who knocked on doors and signed checks in 2008. And there is no excuse for Obama tolerating this. On the whole, Republicans would be more respectful of their loyalists.

Obama must now find ways to do two seemingly incompatible things at the same time: win independents back and reestablish better relations with those to his left. His party lost sixty-five House districts, six Senate seats, and eight crucial governorships that he carried in 2008—in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine, Iowa, New Mexico, and Florida (technically governed by an independent, Charlie Crist). This means, among other things, that Obama has a smaller political base from which to operate than anticipated, and a weaker political machine. Critics from the President’s left and center, not shy to start with, will become less so.

And most of all, fissures that Obama’s election and early period managed to paper over will start to come out into the open now. His deficit commission may have made its recommendations by the time this article is published. The liberal and centrist wings of the party, both mollified by Obama the candidate in 2008, will start arguing now, and demanding that he make choices. On Social Security, for example, should the retirement age be raised? On Medicare, how can the trust fund that may soon run out be replenished? Can Obama find a way to direct public investment toward job creation? And he must now deal with a Congress that will try to force him to accept large spending cuts. What will he get in return? In the days after the election, both Mitch McConnell and John Boehner made bullying claims that Obama was “in denial” (Boehner’s phrase). It was dismaying to see that Obama had really nothing to say in response.

Bill Clinton found a way in 1995–1996, after the Democrats lost the House in 1994, to placate both the middle of his party and its base. Most controversially, he agreed to a punitive kind of welfare reform. But he also stood his ground when Newt Gingrich threatened cuts in Medicare, among other major programs. And when Gingrich tried to shut the government down, Clinton made him suffer a major defeat. Clinton got a big assist from the GOP. Its leaders overestimated their mandate and nominated a weak opponent to face him in 1996. Today’s Republicans might overreach on health care repeal, an issue that would certainly unite the liberal and moderate Democratic factions.

Counting on Republican overreach isn’t exactly what Obama and his admirers had in mind in 2008. But he must now fundamentally rethink the premises of his presidency. He moved into the White House believing that he really could persuade enough Republicans to work with him for the good of a country in crisis. (Nine GOP senators came from states he’d carried.) It was not an absurd belief, but time has revealed it to be a wrong one. Whatever he does or does not say publicly, one hopes that we can safely assume that he has given up any such illusion. But what comes next? It seemed, two years ago, that Obama had a strong capacity for self-reflection and awareness, and for arriving at fresh solutions. That capacity is now open to question. He’d better develop it quickly or his presidency will not recover.

—November 11, 2010

  1. 1

    See Richard Wolffe, “Team Obama Blaming Rahm,” The Daily Beast, November 4, 2010. 

  2. 2

    See Ari Berman, “Boot the Blue Dogs,” The New York Times, October 24, 2010. 

  3. 3

    Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Russell Sage Foundation/Princeton University Press, 2008); see my review in these pages, December 18, 2008. 

  4. 4

    Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street (John Wiley, 2010). 

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