In the wake of the Hillary Clinton’s shocking defeat in the presidential election, two Democratic operatives, Stanley B. Greenberg and Anna Greenberg, turn their attention to President Obama and ask the question “Was Obama Bad for the Democrats” (NY Times, Op Ed, December 23). Their answer is a qualified yes. Before I bear down on the Greenbergs for their insinuation that the Democrats went down to defeat on the presidential and congressional levels because of Obama, let me lay out their argument with editorial interruption.
They begin by acknowledging Obama’s qualities of character, his dignity and honesty, as well as his achievements: he ”rescued an economy in crisis, passed the recovery program, pulled America back from its military overreach, passed the Affordable Care Act and committed the nation to addressing climate change.” But as it turns out, these extraordinary accomplishments pale before his failure to be truly transformative. “His success had to translate into electoral gains for those who share his vision and wanted to reform government. On that, Mr. Obama failed.” During his Administration 1,000 Democrats lost elections and at the end of his tenure, Republicans have acquired total control of ½ of the states and all 3 branches of the Federal government. Why? (As for the losses in state legislatures, gerrymandering is certainly a major cause, but the Greenbergs have nothing to say on the subject.) The main reason, in their view, is that “he never made wage stagnation and growing inequality central to his economic mission.” I am not in a position to evaluate the quantity and quality of Obama’s rhetoric devoted to these issues (the Greenbergs simply assert it to be the case), but it is not at all clear what Obama could by himself have done to overcome wage stagnation and inequality, given external factors such as globalization and political obstacles such as intransigent Republican resistance to legislation, for instance, on infrastructure. The Greenbergs may have a case that Obama was not sufficiently effective “in educating the public about his plans,” but grossly unfair and reductive in characterizing the recovery after the first year of his presidency as “morph[ing] into bank bailouts, auto bailouts, insurance bailouts”—as if the auto bailout had nothing to do with preserving and creating good jobs, and yes, equalizing the living conditions of our citizens, and as if providing health care to millions of uninsured citizens is not a program for reducing inequality. Mystifyingly, Obama is faulted for “spotlighting the jobs he created,” “focusing on those ‘left behind’ by the recovery,” and “building ladders of opportunity.” (Where’s the fault?) Even more mystifying is the charge that “the president believed that the main challenges were unrealized opportunities for a newly ascendant multicultural America” at the expense of “the continuing economic struggle experienced by a majority of Americans.” As Obama said clearly and forcefully in his farewell address, his vision is the opposite of the Trumpian zero sum view of a white majority suffering at the working hands of ethnic and racial minorities—as if the employment figures and wage levels in the country favor minorities at the expense of white Americans.
The Greenbergs go on to task Obama for his tepid support of trade unions, for his strong support of the Trans Pacific Pact, and for his attention to “progress and growth.” “Incomes are rising, poverty is falling,” he claimed, but that the public did not believe it is reflected in his disapproval rating in 2010 and 2014. (Whether the public believes or disbelieves a politician does not determine the truth of the claim (Obama spoke the truth), whereas Trump supporters believe the falsehoods he has uttered or simply don’t care whether they are true or false.) The fact, quickly passed over by the Greenbergs, is that Obama was reelected in 2012. The Greenbergs’s simple explanation (convenient for their thesis) is that he embraced “Teddy Roosevelt’s populist spirit and criticized the ‘breathtaking greed of a few’.” Is that also the reason that he will be “leav[ing] office with a rising approval rating near the same league of Ronald Reagan,” though he apparently hasn’t delivered on his promise, according to the Greenbergs? The incoherent Greenbergs cannot resist the non-sequitur: “Yet a majority of voters in the last election said the economy was a top issue in their vote. They want more than a recovery. They want an economy that works for them [so does Obama EG] and that task is unfinished.” What great fundamental political task is finished, and what does that have to do with the question of whether Obama is bad for the Democrats?
This is Monday morning quarterbacking in which the Greenbergs shift responsibility for Hillary’s presidential defeat and the failure of the Democrats to win the Senate on to the president. Not a single mention of a slew of factors that contributed to the defeat for which Obama is not responsible: 1) an obstructionist Republican Congress that prevented Obama inspired legislation from being enacted, e.g. rebuilding infrastructure that would have helped the workers supporting Trump, 2) a weak presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, who didn’t adequately make her case in the states that swung the election and was made vulnerable by her own mistakes (e.g. misuse of email), 3) Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee email, 4) FBI intrusion in the campaign, 5) sexism stoked by Trump and his supporters. 6) a huge portion of the electorate susceptible to demagoguery and either willing to believe the lies it was fed or indifferent to the truth. 7) voter suppression, 8) the media’s indulgence in false equivalence between the sins of the candidates. The Greenbergs don’t even mention the fact that despite the failures, Clinton won the popular vote by a large margin and lost the swing states by a very small one. However one wishes to understand the results of the election, displacing the reasons and responsibility for the defeat onto a deservedly popular outgoing president, to be sure with his share of flaws and failures, who has accomplished a great deal, is a travesty of political analysis, an exercise in self-laceration rather than what is needed now, thoughtful auto critique and a focus on the response of the electorate to Trump’s bizarre appeal. Note how often the media and the “elites” on both sides of the spectrum were incredulous about Trump’s chances, how often they pronounced Trump politically dead after one of his outbursts. No other candidate would have survived. Why?
He survived and triumphed, because of his demagogic gift for exploiting grievance and frustration. Without the responsibilities of office, or accountability for any actions he would and now will have to take in office, he could speak to his followers with impunity vaguely and incoherently in resonant generalities about how he will solve all problems and “make America great again.” The key word is “resonance.” Hillary won all three debates by the standards on which political and intellectual debates are normally measured, but they didn’t propel her to victory, because her reasonable, well-spoken, wonkish comments and responses lacked the necessary fire and promise of transformative solutions. What was needed in the swing states was a demagogic voice to match Trump’s, and it was missing. Call it elitist but the judgment I’m passing is on a large and decisive portion of the electorate uncaring about the cogency and persuasiveness of what a politician promises. Trump’s distorted dark vision of America (or at least the vision he affected for the campaign), his indifference to fact and truth, his exploitation of grievance and frustration and his ordinary folk vulgarity needed more than what the political rivals who took him on were capable of providing. It needed a discerning and critical electorate as well, and in the heartland the an electorate was in the minority. Trump supporters, I fear, will rue its failure. Lacking were rivals to Trump with resonant voices, wise, caring and forceful in exposing divisive and demagogic leadership. In recent days it was good for Democrats, indeed, for the whole country to behold the vivid contrast between Obama’s eloquent and persuasive farewell address and Trump’s rant of a press conference. What a falling off from the generous and vibrant Obama and Biden partnership to that of the callow Trump and Uriah Heepish Pence.
Postscript. I have set aside the failure of the Democratic Party to win the Senate and a significant number of new seats in the House of Representatives. Here are interesting facts. Notwithstanding the Republican majority in the Senate, the total popular vote for the Senate divided in favor of the Democrats: 45.2 million for the Democrats, 39.3 million for the Republicans. The Democrats, however, had the advantage in having 1/3 of the Senate up for election coming from preponderantly large blue states (for example, from New York and California, not from Texas). As for the House, in which the all the seats are competitive, the total popular vote favored the Republicans: 56.3 for the Republicans, 53.2 for the Democrats. It is fair to ask the question, what can a president with overwhelming executive responsibilities do to strengthen his party and its representation in the legislature and the states without precipitously and self-defeatingly blaming him for the party’s failures, as do the Greenbergs. Still in his fifties, the compelling and charismatic Obama will remain a sorely needed active political force in sustaining our democracy.