Ever since Richard Nixon found a way for conservatives to win the presidency, Democrats have struggled to win the nation’s highest office. (Nixon’s trick, for those who aren’t up on their history, was to unmask the national Democratic Party to the South, thereby forever giving the Republicans a solid electoral base – the southern states and the country’s heartland – in every presidential election.)
It took the Watergate scandal and a middle of the road, southern candidate (Jimmy Carter) to narrowly squeak out a win in 1976. It took a master politician (Bill Clinton), also from a southern state, a failing U.S. economy, a clueless incumbent (George H.W. Bush) and a third-party candidate (Ross Perot) to win by a plurality vote in 1992. It took a roaring economy, a very weak Republican opponent (Bob Dole), and another Perot candidacy for Clinton to win re-election in 1996.
And it took a masterfully captivating, if enigmatic, campaign in the face of an economy in free-fall and a country that was fed up with another Bush (George W.) and everything he stood for (as represented by John McCain) to elect Barack Obama in 2008.
None of those favorable conditions are likely to exist a year from now, when the country’s electorate settles in and decides whom it wants to lead it for the next four years. Instead, the Democrats are facing the worst possible scenario, to wit: an economy that has not recovered and may feel like it is still in a recession, a fervent effort to regain the White House by the Republicans, led by a rabid base that will rally for any candidate not named Romney, and an incumbent president who has managed to alienate his liberal base, incur the hatred of the hard-core conservative opposition, and disenchant the critical middle third of the electorate.
Barack Obama’s failure as the president of the country that gave him a decisive win in 2008 can best be described as colossal. Now thirty-one months into his presidency, he still hasn’t figured out how to lead effectively. And the country is catching on to that fact, after an overly long honeymoon period that saw his personal approval ratings consistently above 50%.
The honeymoon is over. Obama’s latest approval rating has dipped into the George W. Bush-like sub-40% range. And with the leader of the loyal opposition crowing, after the deal the president accepted on the debt ceiling, that he “got 98%” of what he wanted, Obama’s leadership abilities would probably get an even lower rating.
Democrats should be starting to wonder if just casting a protest vote in next year’s primaries is sending enough of a message. Instead, they should be looking for a new candidate.
They should be looking for a candidate who can take the fight to the new ultra-right Republican Party. They should be looking for a candidate who can explain that stimulus is not a dirty word and that the only way to get the economy straightened out is to increase government spending. They should be looking for a candidate who has the courage to get the country out of the military quagmires it has been in since 2001. They should be looking for a firebrand liberal who can make liberalism fashionable again.
Barack Obama is not that candidate. Whatever else might be said of him, Barack Obama is not a liberal. He might act like a liberal in the way he negotiates (assuming that liberals are inherently terrible negotiators), but he isn’t a liberal in his heart of hearts, in his soul, in his core beliefs.
The record speaks for itself. He pushes for a health care bill that rewards corporate interests at the expense of the middle class. He champions a financial regulation bill that keeps the vested interests of Wall Street in power. He enhances military forces to prosecute ill-founded and poorly fought wars. He permits human rights abuses (Guantanamo, foreign renditions, military tribunals, drone missile attacks) to continue unabated. He extends tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans while failing to fight for extended unemployment benefits for the poorest. He authorizes off-shore drilling after a massive oil spill and doesn’t even push for tighter regulation of the industry in the process.
This is not the record of a liberal.
But more to the point, Obama doesn’t sound like a liberal when he speaks. Instead, he sounds like a politician. When his health care bill finally became law, instead of explaining what the bill would mean for average Americans, he derided the bill’s opponents by saying, “I woke up this morning, and, you know what, the sky wasn’t falling.” That line passes for Obama humor, but it also conveniently skirts the real arguments Republicans made against the bill.
In announcing each of his military moves, instead of justifying his decisions with carefully explained reasons, let alone going to Congress to seek formal approval, he has waved the flag and saluted the troops, thereby rallying public support in the cheapest and most obvious of political ploys.
He doesn’t fight for liberal causes. In fact, he hardly pays lip service to them. Instead, he strives constantly to appear “reasonable,” as if acting reasonable leads to reasonable results when the opposition is adamantly unreasonable. A true liberal would never have allowed the debt ceiling issue to become crisis politics and would certainly never have conceded what Obama conceded to get the debt ceiling raised.
Nor would a true liberal have allowed the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans to continue while the opposition made the national debt seem like a crisis that had to be addressed immediately. No wonder Speaker Boehner proudly proclaimed that he got 98% of what he wanted. No liberal would have allowed that result, not with the country’s middle and working classes struggling to get by.
Barack Obama would be a good third party candidate. He’d be the guy in the middle whom a few well-meaning idealists would vote for because he sounded so reasonable.
But he isn’t a true Democrat. And, as he also looks increasingly like another un-electable Democrat, his party ought to wise up and look for someone to take his place as its presidential candidate in 2012.