Accessing Obama’s Legacy

Last night, President Obama gave his final State of the Union speech. I want to take some time to reflect on his seven years in office, as he nears the finish line and the country readies itself to elect someone in November to succeed him. Confession: I have always been an Obama supporter. I was a canvasser on his 2008 campaign and a canvass director for his 2012 campaign. I made lifelong friends through both campaigns, and generally, I think that he has governed with an even hand and level-headed temperament. That said, there are certainly mistakes he made during both terms, and at the end of his speech, he acknowledged one of his biggest regrets, which I’ll address later in this post.

First, it is important to consider where the country was when President Obama was sworn in in January 2009. Unemployment was around 10 percent. The country was bogged down in Iraq, and Wall Street crashed the world economy. (Please, go see The Big Short!) Obama’s campaign caught fire because the country was wary of George W. Bush, who left office with an approval rating in the 30s.  The genius of Obama’s first campaign could be found in its main slogan, “Yes, we can.” Simple, right? The country desperately needed optimism at the time, and here was a freshman senator from Illinois who toppled the establishment candidate in the primaries, Hillary Clinton. Here was  a fresh young voice who promised to govern differently and change politics as usual. It was a message that resonated, and Obama had a sweeping victory in 2008, one which increased the Democratic Party’s majorities in the Senate and House.

Obama’s promise to change politics and heal the divide harkened back to his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address, in which he said that America shouldn’t be divided by red states and blue states. At the time, I was in college and wrote for the student newspaper. After the convention, I penned an editorial stating that Obama was a rising star in the party, presidential material. Four years later, he ran and won.

Yet, perhaps it can be said that President Obama’s promises of change and altering the political landscape to bring the parties together was naïve. In 2012, it was reported that on the day of President Obama’s first inauguration, Republican leaders, including  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, new House Speaker Paul Ryan, former House Leader Eric Cantor, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and others met to discuss how best to counter Obama. So just as his first term was beginning, the opposing party was deciding how best to stop his agenda.

The Republican’s main defense against the Obama Administration has been utter gridlock, especially after the 2010 and 2014 mid-term elections, when they won control of Congress and a majority of state legislatures.  Congress has not done much and has a dismal approval rating. By doing nothing, the GOP-led Congress has made it seem like government is totally inefficient.  This has impacted the president, pulling down his approval rating, which has not climbed out of the 45 percent range much at all during both terms.

Still, the president managed to get re-elected again in 2012, by quite a large margin. If you look back on his seven years in office, there are a number of accomplishments. Unemployment is now around 5 percent. Gas prices are falling under $2 a gallon. Two progressive justices have been appointed to the Supreme Court. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. More Americans have health insurance. The auto industry is alive. Gay marriage is now legal, and recently, through executive action, new gun laws are on the books, including stronger background checks, which most Americans, including gun owners favor.

Last night, the president’s final SOTU address was meant to counter the pessimism and sour mood plaguing the country. Despite lower unemployment, Americans don’t feel like they’re getting a fair shake. The economic crash and the bailout proved just how rigged the game is. Meanwhile, wages have remained stagnant since the Reagan years. This is why Bernie Sanders has so much support on the left and why Trump is so popular on the right. People are mad, feeling as though the change the president promised in 2008, the message of “Yes, we can” never panned out.

Yet, Obama’s legacy is quite impressive. Still, though, Obama was naïve to think dissolving the divide in Washington would be easy, or even possible. Near the end of his speech last night, he admitted that one regret he has is that the political environment is just as bad or even more toxic than when got to the White House. He offered some solutions, such as campaign finance reform to get big money out of politics and ending gerrymandering. However, it’s not likely any of that will happen soon, especially in an election year.

Right now, the country is mad as hell and doesn’t want to take it anymore. This is an election year in which anything could happen. Trump may very well be the Republican nominee and Sanders could beat Clinton. Latest polling shows him close to her in Iowa and beating her in New Hampshire, the first two primary states. Yet, voters would do well to remember where the country was in 2008. Certainly, we’re better off than where we were. Still, there is work to be done, especially on fairer wages and boiling racial tensions. The president also reminded Americans that in a Jeffersonian, representative democracy, citizen participation is a must. That is what the whole “Yes, we can” slogan was all about. In 2008, too many voters thought that electing one candidate who promised change would quell all of the country’s woes, but it’s more complicated than that. No candidate elected this November will be able to fix everything. That requires real citizen engagement, which is work. Is the country up to the task, or do citizens just want to be angry, vote for the loudest candidate, and then go back to being unengaged the day after the election?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bernie Sanders and the Politics of Election Cycles and Celebrity

It’s starting to feel like 2008 again. Only, instead of Shepard Ferry’s Hope and Change posters, we have numerous articles, including this one from the Huffington Post, about Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls and the possibility that he could defeat Hillary Clinton in the primary. He’s closing the gap in New Hampshire and Iowa. Other articles have reported on the massive size of his campaign rallies.

One thing can be said. Sanders has energized his base. The size of his rallies and the money he’s raising offer proof of that. I, too, am excited about Sanders. He’s the only self-identified socialist in the Senate, and when he speaks about economic equality for all, I believe what he says.

That said, I have one big concern. The left in this country tends to get very excited every four years during presidential election cycles. They fell in love  with Obama in 2008, and then after the election, the left went silent, other than the Occupy Movement and some other movements here and there, which formed as a response to the left’s disillusionment with the president and the widening economic inequality. Then, in 2012, activists knocked on doors again and helped re-elect Obama. After the election, however, they went away.

Here’s the thing: if Sanders is somehow elected to the White House, he most likely will accomplish less than Obama did in his first term. To his credit, Obama passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Obamacare, and bailed out Detroit, all within his first two years in office, before his party lost the House and nearly lost the Senate in the 2010 mid-term elections. When he was elected in 2008, his party had a super-majority in the House and a majority in the Senate. If Sanders is elected, he will face a divided government. It is highly unlikely the Democrats will win back the House, though retaking the majority in the Senate seems likely. However, the Dem’s Senate majority is likely to be 1-3 seats, and the Senate landscape in the 2018 mid-term elections will favor Republicans, due, in part because Democrats will have more seats to defend. Whatever big proposals Sanders puts forth would most likely die in the House or get filibustered in the Senate.

After Obama was elected in 2008, I hoped there would be a sustainable movement, one that would push him even more to the left. Instead, there was the rise of the Tea Party Movement. Then, after the 2012 election, I held out hope again, and even the Obama campaign tried to make OFA (Organizing for America) into a long-term movement. However, that never happened.

The left needs to learn what the right has known for years. Electoral politics, especially at the national level, are only part of the puzzle. Movements are what create and sustain change. While I am happy that Bernie Sanders has reignited the national debate about income inequality, I have a major concern that the left is once again ready to funnel all of its energy into supporting a candidate, hoping he will create lasting change. If Sanders is to have any real, lasting impact beyond this election cycle, then he needs to encourage his supporters to keep the momentum going well beyond election season. He must encourage movement building.

We’ve seen the left rise up during Occupy and Black Lives Matter, but the tents in Zuccotti Park were swept away by Bloomberg and the NYPD a few months into the movement, and the fate of the Black Lives Matter movement is uncertain, though thus far, it has had more of an impact and has sustained itself far longer than Occupy. There is potential for something bigger. If Sanders can somehow channel the energy of his campaign crowds into something sustainable, then he will achieved something more important than a campaign victory and a seat in the White House. He will have ignited a movement that has been bubbling under the surface in this country for years.

Which Way Is the Country Moving Post-Election?

John Cassidy, staff writer for the New Yorker, has an interesting blog post regarding which way the country is shifting politically. Cassidy’s post presents some evidence that is good news for progressives, especially in regards to ending trickle down economics and creating a fairer tax system. Cassidy cites a new poll from Politico/George Washington University showing that 60 percent of Americans now back higher taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year, and 64 percent support raising taxes on larger corporations. He goes on to state that support for higher taxes on the rich extends across the political spectrum, and even among Republicans, there is almost a 40 percent backing for a more progressive tax policy.

Cassidy also notes that support for gay marriage is at an all-time high, referencing a Gallup poll conducted in late November that showed 53 percent of Americans now support gay marriage or some form of a civil union. However, it’s important to point out that on other issues, the country is not shifting that much. Most Americans do not favor major cuts to the Pentagon budget or increased government spending to create stimulus programs.

The blog post reminds me of some comments I’ve heard from friends lately, friends so sure the country is shifting to the left because Obama won re-election and the Dems gained seats in the Senate. Some of them have even stated it will be nearly impossible for the GOP to win national elections again. However, these conversations have occurred before, and history has shown the opposing party has a way of bouncing back. After Barry Goldwater was soundly defeated in the 1960s, it was said the GOP was dead, but after a generation, they bounced back with the likes of Ronald Reagan and George Bush I. Then, after losing to Clinton twice, the GOP resurrected itself yet again in the 2000s, maintaining control of Congress and the White House for a few election cycles.

Right now, the GOP has a lot of soul searching to do, and the party is in disarray. For the party to stay relevant, it is going to have to produce a broader range of national candidates, perhaps pushing to the national stage politicians like South Carolina Gov. Nikky Haley, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, or Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. It can no longer be the party of old white guys. The party also needs to move more to the center, especially on social issues and the tax code, because as Cassidy’s reporting points out, the country no longer favors trickle down economics, and that is indeed a huge victory for progressives and a sign that on the tax system at least, the country has indeed moved to the left.

The left, meanwhile, needs to keep the momentum and organization used throughout the election cycle, especially to pressure the president to close Gitmo, truly draw down the war in Afghanistan, and create more economic stimulus. Without maintaining organization, activism, and discipline, the Democrats could face some major losses in 2014, especially since they will have more Senate seats to defend than the GOP. For the country to truly move forward on a number of issues, the movements that got Obama elected twice have to continue.

Don’t Panic, People!

A lot of my liberal friends have been moaning and groaning over the last few days after President Obama’s lackluster debate performance last week. However, I’ve been telling them not to worry, at least not yet. In the last few decades, incumbant presidents have more times than not lost the first debate. Ronald Reagan had a poor performance against Walter Mondale in 1984. George Bush Sr. lost the first debate to Clinton. George Bush Jr. lost the first round to John Kerry in 2004. All of those candidates, other than Bush Sr., went on to win re-election.

Furthermore, the president was never a good debtor. He lost several of the debates to Hillary Clinton in 2008, and he lost the first debate to John McCain after securing the Democratic nomination. He is better at giving speeches, especially when he hasn’t debated in four years and his opponent went through a long, drawn-out primary season with a record number of debates.

Sure, Mitt Romney got a bit of a bounce from the first debate. However, President Obama is still ahead in the electoral count, and that’s what matters most.  Just about every electoral map has Obama ahead. Here is a sampling of the Huff Post’s map and The New York Times map, as two examples.

It was probably likely the race was going to tighten after the debate anyways. The president enjoyed a post-convention bounce and was pulling ahead. Romney is enjoying a slight post-debate bounce, but bounces fade after a week or two.

Meanwhile, if you want to get involved in the election, for either candidate, the offices always need help. I continually tell my friends that instead of posting political rants on Facebook, they should do phonebanking, canvassing, or voter registration.

Romney Gambles His Political Future on Paul Ryan

Late Friday night, word broke that Mitt Romney was going to pick Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan for join him on the ticket as VP. The decision was formally announced Saturday morning in Virgina, aboard the USS Wisconsin, which is a bit ironic since neither men have military experience.

Ryan should galvanize progressives to get out and vote for a number of reasons. The Congressman believes in a total Ayn Rand philosophy of the individual versus the collective and extreme limited government. Several articles about him point out that he used to make his staff read Rand.  He wants to turn Social Security and Medicare into a voucher system, basically privatizing it and ending it as we know it.His budget plan was even called “too radical” by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said it would lead to  “right-wing social engineering.” However, later Gingrich walked back those comments.  Ryan also draws the ire of the left because he’s had the support of the Koch-brothers for years in WI, and they helped him make his name by pumping money into his campaigns.

On the other side, Ryan will galvanize the fringe Tea Party wing of the GOP, though perhaps they’re not the fringe anymore, if Ryan is now sitting on the Romney ticket. The right has won, but in the end, it may sink the GOP’s chances to win the White House. Democrats and their SuperPACS have salavated at the chance to go after the Ryan budget in attack ads. Now they’ll have the chance, and the country will have a serious debate about the Ryan budget that nearly every Republican voted for in the House earlier this year.

For more about Ryan, I suggest reading this article that appeared recently in the New Yorker. To paraphrase the article’s author, Ryan Lizza, putting Ryan on the ticket is the riskiest move Romney could have made.

The President’s New Tone

I’m taking a break from blogging about poetry/writing to address politics again. A few weeks ago, after a Republican won  a House seat in a deep blue NY district during a special election, I said here that Obama is going to have a tough time seeking re-election in 2012. As someone who worked on his campaign in 2008,  I have been disappointed in his lack of willingness to stand up to Republicans and fight for key Democratic principles. I wondered what direction the president would take heading into 2012 and whose re-election campaigns he would try to emulate. Over the last few weeks, we have started to see how he plans to run for re-election. His new tone just may rally his alienated base.

Despite being surrounded by a bunch of former Clinton advisors, Obama doesn’t seem to be following Clinton’s path to re-election from 1996. Clinton moved to the center, as opposed to the left, and pushed bills that reformed Welfare and won over more independents and even some conservatives.  Recently, Obama has channeled two other Democratic presidents more so than Bill Clinton- Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

I say Obama is channeling FDR because of his newly released jobs bill, which calls for higher taxes on the wealthy and a lot of infrastructure programs, including the creation of a high-speed rail system and the rebuilding of America’s crumbling schools.   Like FDR, Obama has been arguing lately that in times of high unemployment, the government should act and pass a jobs bill to put people back to work. FDR did this successfully through the New Deal programs. This idea is the total opposite of the current GOP platform. The Republican leadership does not believe in a comprehensive jobs bill or further stimulus spending to put people back to work. They have been pushing greater austerity measures.

It has yet to be seen if Obama’s job bill will pass the GOP-controlled House. Republicans don’t seem likely to hand Obama a victory,even if parts of his job bill are popular with the public.  Still, though, the president has been pushing the jobs bill day in and day out, and while doing so, he’s been channeling another Democratic president– Harry Truman. When Truman was re-elected, he ran against a very unpopular Congress. As I said in a previous post, Obama’s job performance numbers are low,  in the 40s, but Congress’ overall approval number is even lower, historic lows. Some polls have Congress at 19 percent approval; other polls have Congress at 22 or 23 percent approval.  Obama knows this, and he’s taken the gloves off to go on the offensive against GOP leadership in the House and Senate. He’ s also been pushing the plan in the districts of his opposition. He did a speech last week at a bridge in Ohio that links the Congressional district of House speaker John Boehner with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky. The president slammed both leaders for the gridlock in Washington.

The president has also been quicker to counter GOP attacks. When he stated recently he wants a higher tax rate for millionaires, GOP leadership cried class warfare. Obama countered that it’s not class warfare, just simple math.

Obama’s new populist tone should rally his base. This is the president  a lot of supporters thought they voted for in 2008, someone willing to stand up for the middle class and jumpstart the economy.  Still, though, Obama is going to face daunting unemployment numbers heading into 2012 and skepticism by some voters that he can fix the economy. It’s not likely the unemployment  number of 9.1 percent will come down much between now and next November, and even if parts of the jobs bill pass Congress, their effects on unemployment may take time.  But if Obama runs against the unpopular Congress, continues his populist tone, and points out how  far to the right the current GOP presidential candidates are, he does have a better chance of winning a second term.