President Obama’s Labor Day speech was replete with campaign themes, all of them calibrated to rouse Democratic voters from their torpor in time for the congressional balloting eight weeks from today.
It’s questionable at this point whether his themes will actually resonate with his base – especially young people aged 18 to 34, and even African-Americans; both key cohorts are showing little interest in the midterms, according to the latest bipartisan NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. After all, the conventional wisdom has already decreed that the odds of the Democrats retaining the House and Senate are roughly on a par with the prospects for a Beatles reunion.
But, thanks to Obama’s speech yesterday in Milwaukee, we can at least foresee what he plans to say between now and November, as he tries to access his inner Truman (such as it is) and make a feisty and perhaps futile case for a new (albeit much smaller) Democratic Congress.
In one key passage, Obama warned Democratic voters that if they stay home in droves (as they did in 1994, the Newt Gingrich election), they’ll surely deliver at least one chamber to the party that put America in the toilet.
He argued that the Republican philsophy “didn’t work out so well for our country. All it did was rack up record deficits and result in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. I mean, think about it, we have tried what they’re peddling. We did it for 10 years. We ended up with the worst economy since the 1930s and record deficits to boot. It’s not like we haven’t tried what they’re trying to sell us. Now, I’m bringing this up not because I’m trying to re-litigate the past. I’m bringing it up because I don’t want to re-live the past.”
He continued: “Basically, here’s what this election comes down to. (Republicans) are betting that between now and November, you’re going to come down with amnesia. They figure you’re going to forget what their agenda did to this country. They think you’ll just believe that they’ve changed…
“They drove our economy into a ditch…And then when we finally got the car up – and it’s got a few dings and a few dents, it’s got some mud on it, we’re going to have to do some work on it – they say (to Americans), ‘Look what these guys did to your car!’ After we got it out of the ditch! And then they got the nerve to ask for the keys back! I don’t want to give them the keys back. They don’t know how to drive…
“That’s the choice we face this fall: Do we want to go back? Or do we want to go forward?”
This forward/backward theme is not entirely new, of course. Obama used it in a speech back on June 2. And he assailed George W. Bush’s tenure on that occasion, just as he did yesterday. It’s actually standard procedure for a president to trash the record of his predecessor – Ronald Reagan frequently targeted Jimmy Carter, as did the senior George Bush when he ran for president eight years after Carter’s departure – and perhaps Obama can inflame Democratic base voters by stoking grim memories of the W. era. (Although he does seem a tad defensive about doing so – “I’m bringing this up not because I’m trying to re-litigate the past.”)
The problem, however, is that while most Americans tell the pollsters that they still blame Bush more than Obama for the sour economy, they also think that the congressional Republicans would bring new ideas to the table if returned to power. According to the new NBC-Wall Street Journal survey, which is jointly conducted by a Democratic pollster and a Republican counterpart, 58 percent of Americans believe that the post-Bush GOP would depart from Bush-era orthodoxy.
Why so many people believe this is a bit of a mystery, given the Republican leadership’s support for extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich, as a key plank of economic recovery. But so say the poll numbers – which suggest, in the broader sense, that frustrated voters are simply willing at this point to give the “out” party the benefit of the doubt.
What Obama’s party will require this autumn, at minimum, is a strong organizational turnout effort from organized labor – which helps explain why Obama yesterday delivered so many shout outs to the beleaguered movement. For instance, “It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today. The 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans. The cornerstones of the middle-class security all bear the union label.”
And, with reference to one issue in particular, there was this: “If everybody is still talking about privatizing Social Security, they need to be clear. It will not happen on my watch. Not when I’m President of the United States of America.”
We’ll be hearing a lot from the Democrats this fall about Social Security; Obama was basically urging the labor turnout machine to gear up against the tea-party Republican candidates – such as Harry Reid’s Nevada foe, Sharron Angle – who have been resurrecting the GOP’s failed talking points about privatization (Bush, 2005). It’s worth a shot, if only because Social Security is one of the few issues where Democrats are polling well; in the NBC-WSJ survey, 68 percent say they’re not comfortable with GOP talk about phasing out the entitlement.
But it’s tough to win merely by defending an existing program. Yesterday, Obama sought to give Democrats something new and proactive to talk about: the creation of a government-run bank that would finance nationwide job-creating infrastructure projects; launched with $50 billion in federal seed money, it would use that money to leverage private capital. The bank idea actually has been germinating for awhile, and it has considerable support in policy circles – although it wouldn’t add any jobs until some time in 2011.
In terms of the political optics alone, this idea might persuade some stay-at-home Democrats that Obama is indeed focused on job creation and determined to “do something.” In theory, anyway. The problem is that nothing of the sort is likely to be enacted in Congress prior to the election; an ambitious plan to fix the roads and bridges and train corridors would surely require some bipartisan support, and there’s virtually no way that Republicans would say yes to job creation. After all, they don’t want to undercut their campaign claim that Obama has whiffed on job creation. The more miserable and hopeless people feel, the better the GOP’s odds of winning this year.
And the thing is, people do feel miserable. The themes floated by Obama yesterday risk being trumped by the sour mood; the NBC-WSJ poll reports that only 26 percent of Americans believe the economy will improve in the next 12 months. That’s down 14 points from a similar survey in May – right around the time when Obama insisted in a speech that “this economy is getting stronger by the day.”
When people are this pessimistic (and impatient for results), they’re not necessarily willing to listen with interest to what a president has to say in a stump pitch on Labor Day – or to be motivated en masse to back that president’s party on election day.