Presidential spokesman Robert “Un-Glib” Gibbs was distinctly off-target in his attack on “the professional left” earlier this week.
His statements triggered a set of blazing counterattacks, based on the perhaps naïve premise that Gibson was clumsily but sincerely protecting the president from increasing signs of disenchantment coming from the Democratic base.
It remains to be seen if Gibson was actually departing from the White House script, or if the Administration was calculatedly trying to position Obama as the sensible voice of moderation against both the extremists of the Right and the organized progressive wing of the Democratic Party, in an attempt to win over the largely mythical “center.”
Echoes of Clinton’s triangulation strategy
Gibbs’ comment carried echoes of a Bill Clinton-style “triangulation” strategy that effectively provided far more concessions to Tom DeLay and the Right than it did in delivering for the public interest.
Going back to its earliest days, even President Obama’s greatest accomplishment, the $787 billion stimulus plan which prevented a total economic death spiral for the economy, was severely weakened by its fantasy-based goal of trying to capture the support of fully half of an extremist Republican Senate marching in lockstep against his every move.
But hopeful progressives both inside and outside Congress loyally went along with the futile concessions tossed in the Republicans’ direction. The stakes for the Democratic electoral base of workers, people of color, youth and senior citizens were simply too high, so progressives strongly supported Obama.
Similarly, whether Gibbs was blurting out an impulsive defense of his boss or engaging in a manipulative maneuver, the problem that Obama and the Democrats face this November will not be with the professional Left, by whom I assume he means progressives closely affiliated with some social movement or at least tied through the blogosphere.
These folks – which include a good proportion of In These Times readers – will eventually conclude that it is far better to scuffle with a remarkably spineless, clueless and faithless group of Democrats than to engage in a death match with Republican zealots intent on rolling back the Great Society, the New Deal, the 14th Amendment and perhaps even the Emancipation Proclamation.
The real problem for Obama and the Dems: their voters
While it may be organizational leaders and bloggers who are publicly articulating the grievances of disappointed progressives, far more worrisome for Gibbs & Co. should be the disaffection of people who turned out enthusiastically in 2008 but have had little to cheer about since. Above all, they should worry about the 30 million unemployed or underemployed workers who watched the remarkably successful bail-out of Wall Street and surging profits in the corporate boardrooms, while facing ongoing and mounting misery in the form of feeble job growth, wage cuts, foreclosures and family anxiety.
As Art Levine skillfully laid out in these pages, the Obama administration’s lack of economic boldness in fighting for job-creation and stimulus programs has deeply harmed precisely those groups who came out to vote for the first time on the basis of his electrifying campaign of hope and change – especially young people and minority groups.
Latinos are still waiting for Obama to fight for “La Promesa” of fundamental immigration reform that would grant legitimacy to the millions of undocumented workers being ruthlessly exploited and deprived of fundamental rights because they live in a legal twilight zone. Instead, more Latino immigrants are being rounded up and deported now than under George W. Bush, and the poisonous hatred of immigrants fed by the Right has only been whetted, not satiated. Meanwhile, gays are still being discharged from the military despite Obama’s promise to repeal “don’t ask don’t tell” and a clear federal timeline for terminating it.
A program for restoring faith
If he wanted to however, Obama could potentially recoup much of the lost enthusiasm with an aggressive new program that would deliver tangible results to his constituencies. Of course, adopting this program would require abandoning the practice of trying to appease his most vicious and implacable opponents – the “drill, baby, drill!” crowd – who can never be satiated, while demanding endless patience from the countless first-time voters whose faith he engaged.
One part of the program would be bolstering spending power with a progressive tax cut, such as a holiday on payroll (FICA) taxes as Robert Reich suggests:
[Let’s] have a payroll tax holiday. Eighty percent of Americans pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes. So, you say, the first $20,000 of income, there will be no payroll taxes for the next two years. We’ll make it up by, let’s say, subjecting people with incomes over $250,000 to payroll taxes.
Beyond the fun it would be watching the GOP oppose this tax cut, more importantly, it would provide relief to struggling working families and increase still-dismal domestic buying power to stimulate the economy.
Another part of the program would be reforming unemployment compensation. Far from discouraging the jobless from taking available employment, as the scapegoating Republicans insist, unemployment benefits help keep families afloat and make a real difference in the lives of those living on the edge. Currently there are five officially unemployed people for every job opening, and many existing job openings pay so little that employees would be unable to pay their mortgages if they gave up their unemployment compensation. As it is, not enough people who need unemployment benefits are able to receive it. Only 43% to 44% of the officially-counted jobless actually receive unemployment benefits, and those unemployed beyond 99 weeks have lost their sole source of income. Repairing the unemployment compensation system would signal to these voters that the Obama administration cares about Main Street as much as it cares about Wall Street.
With the economy on a trajectory that would restore pre-recession employment levels only by 2015 at best, Obama must put forth a bold public jobs-creation program. Relying on the private sector is a sure loser because corporations have effectively gone on strike when it comes to job creation. Under FDR, the U.S. created three million jobs in three months, and that began to take away the clouds of despair overtaking the nation. Obama needs to press ahead and do the same thing now.
And while it is politically implausible to imagine immigration reform passing in this session, President Obama can at least begin to re-frame the future debate by calling attention to the roots of the crisis: the devastation caused by NAFTA to Mexico’s economy. Even the very conservative former Mexican president Vicente Fox now argues that NAFTA should have been conceived as a development program rather than an investor-rights deal aimed at simply exploiting Mexico’s low-wage labor.
Obama can both re-shape the immigration debate and start to restructure NAFTA by promoting job creation through infrastructure-building in Mexico, including the rebuilding of roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and telecommunications. In fact, much the same cure is needed in the U.S.
It’s too late to expect an economic recovery in time for the election – the Republicans are consciously intent on sabotaging any economic stimulus – regardless of the human cost – in order to punish Obama politically. But it’s not too late for Obama and his severely out-of-touch political advisors to recognize that Obama and the Democrats must clearly show their potential voters whose side they are truly on – or they will lose a huge chunk of their 2008 supporters.