Plus Ça Change…

(cross-posted at Offsprung)

I was going to title this post “Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss.” But in truth, although the House of Representatives changed hands dramatically last Tuesday, that doesn’t make John Boehner or the GOP “the new boss.” In reality, Obama is still “boss” – if anyone is in our checks-and-balances system. The Senate is still in Democratic hands, albeit less firmly than before Tuesday. The main point about “meet the new boss…,” though, is the sense it conveys of “nothing changes.” Hence the title I did choose.

I’ve already written a few posts regarding last Tuesday’s election results, both here and elsewhere. In the first and third posts, I pointed out that although the election results were bad for Democrats, they weren’t devastating, and also that the GOP is going to have an internal war on its hands between the teabaggers (either the newly elected representatives themselves, or the people who elected them) and traditional, establishment Republicans. The latter as in fact already started happening.

But in my second (and longest) post, I returned to a theme I’ve been harping on for some time now: namely, that Obama and congressional Democrats (Reid much more than Pelosi) made an enormous strategic blunder by their continued willingness to try to extend the olive branch to Republicans, and by failing to notice that the current GOP minority not only loathed Obama and the Dems, but had made a strategic decision to simply oppose literally everything they proposed. By steadfastly refusing to identify any “bad guys” whatsoever (except only rarely and tepidly), and especially not naming the GOP as bad actors, Obama and congressional Dems had not only allowed the GOP to (once again) set the terms of the debate and frame the issues the way they prefer, but also gave the voters and the public permission – even encouragement – to believe that no one, least of all the GOP, were to blame for recent catastrophes that are in fact directly traceable almost completely to previous Republican policies or actions. Iraq and the fiscal meltdown at the end of 2008 are only the two most obvious; the full list is much longer. The point is the same, though: if the President himself (ably assisted by congressional Democrats) consistently and repeatedly doesn’t identify the GOP as being in the wrong on these issues or in any way to blame for them, then how surprising is it that the Democratic base – who DO believe the GOP bears the lions share of the blame for some of these things – stayed home? How surprising is it that low-information and so-called “swing” voters decided to vote Republican again, in the face of continued high unemployment and sluggish economic recovery?

I’m writing this mostly as a follow-up post to that second, longer midterm-post-mortem post for two reasons. First, because I had hoped that a significant drubbing at the polls would serve as cold water in the face for Democrats (especially Obama); reminding them that a strategy of shying away from their own accomplishments (like health care) and blaming one’s own base for not being enthusiastic enough while courting GOP cooperation that wasn’t ever going to materialize, is a losing strategy. I’d hoped that a bad outcome for Dems last Tuesday might remind President Obama that the best way to rally people to stay engaged for a lengthy project as sweeping as hope for real, fundamental change is by leading the fight for it, visibly and consistently, and that this realization might be the beginning of a new era of much more inspiring and bold rhetoric and objectives in the second half of his term.

I should have known better.

Here’s the transcript, verbatim, of the President’s press conference on Wednesday Nov. 3, the day after the 2010 midterm elections:

OBAMA: So with that, let me take some questions. I’m going to start off with Ben Feller at AP.

Q: Thank you, Mr. President. Are you willing to concede at all that what happened last night was not just an expression of frustration about the economy, but a fundamental rejection of your agenda? And given the results, who do you think speaks to the true voice of the American people right now: you or John Boehner?

OBAMA: I think that there is no doubt that people’s number-one concern is the economy. And what they were expressing great frustration about is the fact that we haven’t made enough progress on the economy. We’ve stabilized the economy. We’ve got job growth in the private sectors. But people all across America aren’t feeling that progress. They don’t see it. And they understand that I’m the President of the United States, and that my core responsibility is making sure that we’ve got an economy that’s growing, a middle class that feels secure, that jobs are being created. And so I think I’ve got to take direct responsibility for the fact that we have not made as much progress as we need to make.

Now, moving forward, I think the question is going to be can Democrats and Republicans sit down together and come up with a set of ideas that address those core concerns. I’m confident that we can.

I think that there are some areas where it’s going to be very difficult for us to agree on, but I think there are going to be a whole bunch of areas where we can agree on.

Obama’s response continues, but I think you get the point: this almost-inexplicable, instinctive attempt of Obama’s to hedge, to not stand boldly on traditional Democratic principles and policy goals – and especially the reflexive refusal to take the fight to Republicans (or even to acknowledge that it IS a fight) – just isn’t going to change. Not now, and not even if Obama wins reelection in 2012. It’s just not.

Obama had to have been expecting the very first question (and possibly all the questions that day) to be about the election results. He had to have known what was coming, and he had enough time (or his speechwriters did) to prepare a solid response. What would a good response have looked like? Imagine if President Obama had said the following, instead of the mealy-mouthed same-ol’ he did say:

“Thanks for the question, Ben. Anyone can see that yesterday, the Republicans picked up a number of seats at the expense of my party. I can’t say we weren’t hoping – and working very hard – for a different outcome. But to your point about whether this was a fundamental rejection of my agenda, I don’t think so. Remember, it’s almost always the case that the incumbent President’s party loses seats in congress in the midterms following the Presidential election. That’s just the historical reality. The fact that the GOP last night won more than the average number of seats typically picked up by the opposition party in a midterm election is still, I believe, a function of the continued severity of our economic situation. America went through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and we’ve been slower to recover from such a deep hole than any of us would like. And so another thing that’s historically true in American politics is that when things are bad, the voters understandably tend to take their frustrations out on the party in power. Yesterday, that was us.

But in 2006 and 2008, if you’ll recall, it was the Republicans. And come January, it’s going to be the Republicans again, in the House, anyway. That means voters are going to be reminded of just how we got into the mess we’re in, and they’re going to have two years to see what kind of ideas the GOP has to improve that mess – and how effective they are. Voters are going to hold not just me and congressional Democrats accountable for whatever progress is or isn’t made. They’re going to be holding the Republicans accountable, too. One of the few advantages to being completely out of power as the GOP was the past two years, is that you can afford to sit back and say nothing beyond “no.” You can take positions which sound great to your base but might not be so workable in the real world, because you won’t be blamed if they don’t work since they won’t be implemented in the first place. All that changes in January: the GOP will have to do more than critique and obstruct, they’ll have to help govern. And the voters will be watching them this time around, too.

As far as who speaks for the true voice of the voters? I appreciate where you’re coming from with that question; you wonder if I think that the Republicans’ indisputable gains in the House on Tuesday means that the American people have said John Boehner now represents their true voice, their true wishes, more than I do. I always try to understand what voters are saying, and of course I respect the voters’ decisions, but let’s be clear: John Boehner represents the Eighth district of Ohio. I’m the President of the United States. Two years ago, almost 67 million people voted me into office to work towards bringing about the change I promised them during the 2008 campaign. Many of those voters also my party into large majorities in both houses of congress at the same time. My party may have suffered a setback yesterday, and we will continue to reach out to citizens in districts throughout the country to see what their concerns are in the coming weeks. We will also welcome the new Republicans – and some new Democrats, too – into congress. We look forward to working with them. But my job is to keep doing the best job I can for the American people as long as I’m in this office, without bogged down by worrying whether the specifics of some congressional midterm races mean I shouldn’t do that any longer.”

You think maybe THAT would have motivated Obama’s base – the people who turned out in droves in 2008 to elect him to bring about change? At least more than the boilerplate about “sitting down with Republicans” which Obama did give motivated them? In one sense, I suppose the answer to that question doesn’t matter much now: the 2010 midterms are history. But if Obama and congressional Democrats don’t want to be history themselves in 2012 (and beyond), they ought to start paying attention to this, and changing their approach.

But I don’t think they will. I can’t even remember why I was going through old posts this morning, but I came across one I wrote in February of 2009, just after the passage of President Obama and the new Democratic Senate supermajority’s passage of their first piece of major legislation (that wasn’t a hold-over from previous sessions), the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — commonly known (and demonized) as the stimulus. In February of 2009, there was almost nothing yet with which to judge how Obama would act – or how successful he would be – as President. He’d only been in office a month. Although traditional battle lines of left-vs.-right and Democrat-vs.-Republican were there, as they always are, the Obama Presidency was still an unwritten book, and most people who’d been battered by the Bush years and voted for change were still holding their breath, waiting to see what the new administration would be like.

This was before “the professional left” kerfuffle, before Jane Hamsher appearing on FOX news or working with Grover Norquist, before the acrimonious health care battles, before the tea party even existed. At the time, I certainly was still full of cautious hope that things would be different now, that we could not only make things better for Americans, but that the Democrats, who’d just been overwhelmingly (re)elected, could use the example of the recent, ruinous Bush years to make a bold case to Americans that hadn’t been made for nearly forty years: that Ronald Reagan was wrong when he said that government IS the problem. That instead, government is the expressed will of the people – all of them, not just the wealthy or well-connected ones or the corporations. That America can not and will not any longer abide being 37th in health care while spending far more than any other nation per capita on it. That we will not abide torture being done in our name, for any reason. That we will not invade other countries that have not attacked us. That we WILL return to placing value on the idea of a living wage and vibrant, diverse communities. And so many more things.

I know I wasn’t anywhere near the only person hoping for all of that. For many of us, that’s what the words “hope,” “fundamental transformation” and “change” meant, literally. It wasn’t (for most of us, anyway) a mistaken belief that Obama had promised specific policy items that he didn’t ever promise, but rather a received impression about the way he viewed what had been wrong over the past eight (thirty?) years, and how strongly he felt about truly leading the charge to change them, not just on the dry legislative battlefields of the congressional register, but in the hearts and minds of the people he asked to entrust him with their vote and their hopes, the people he asked to join him.

It’s difficult for me to read that old post of mine now, because I’ve got the benefit of nearly two years of history of how Obama has led, and of what not just his accomplishments and failures have been, but of what his instincts, in reality, are. In February 2009, I wasn’t discouraged, I didn’t doubt – yet. I didn’t have reason to. What makes that post tough for me to re-read today is how little different my reactions to the Obama administration’s actions sound from the way they do today. Almost nothing’s changed, two years later. He’s still trying to appear “above the fray” and “inclusive” and even “bipartisan,” and still apparently just as steadfastly refusing to see what virtually everyone else does: that the GOP still doesn’t WANT cooperation, unless by “cooperation,” we mean capitulation. Only my disappointment has grown in the intervening two years. That’s why I think there’s virtually no chance things will change. Read that old post, and see why I say, “plus ça change…”