November's unpalatable choice
On the eve of the 1940 election, then-President Franklin Roosevelt took to the stump to call out his Republican adversaries for their obstructionism. "The Republican campaign orators and leaders are all now yelling 'me too' on help to Britain. But this fall they had their chance to vote to give aid to Britain and other democracies -- and they turned it down," Roosevelt declared. On this offense, he cited three congressmen as particular offenders: "Great Britain and a lot of other nations would never have received one ounce of help from us -- if the decision had been left to Martin, Barton and Fish."
There's a clear echo of Roosevelt in President Obama's midterm messaging, which he is starting to preview. Republicans, Obama declared in Missouri last week, "said no to laws that we passed to stop insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions. They said no to requiring women to get equal pay for equal work. They said no to extended unemployment insurance for folks who desperately needed help. They said no to holding oil companies accountable when they bring on catastrophe." Then the president castigated three specific offenders: "[T]his is the leadership that we've gotten from Barton and Boehner and Blunt."
Texas Rep. Joe Barton, as the president reminded his audience, was the ranking Republican on the energy committee who apologized to BP for the White House "shakedown" in pursuit of an oil spill compensation fund. Ohio Rep. John Boehner, for his part, traveled to Wall Street to peddle Republicans as the protectors of big banks and has led the opposition to financial regulatory reform. And Missouri's Roy Blunt, among others, stood with the insurance and drug companies against health-care reform.
Indeed, the reality of Republican obstruction is that, in the midst of the Great Recession with the nation facing a dire crisis, they have served as the guardians of entrenched corporate interests, as opposed to the common good. And they have, with remarkable discipline, filibustered and obstructed every major Obama reform. "I think they figure if they just keep on saying no to everything and nothing gets done, they're going to get more votes in November," Obama said. He framed the upcoming election as "a choice between the policies that led us into this mess and the policies that are leading us out of this mess. It's a choice between falling backwards or moving forward."
Will this argument work? It may well energize some of Obama's discouraged supporters, along with drifting independents, by training their focus on the primary source of their frustrations. These groups include people who have been hit especially hard by the economic downturn and may be incensed at the ability of entrenched interests to delay, dilute and defer vital reforms.
These two groups are also especially in need of energizing. According to political analyst Charlie Cook, election enthusiasm, compared to November 2008, is up among those who voted for Republican John McCain; the biggest decline in enthusiasm is among "liberals, African-Americans, self-described Democrats, moderates, those living in either the Northeast or West, and younger voters 18 to 34 years of age." At the same time, recent polls have shown independents moving away from Obama and Democrats and toward the right. The president's backward-or-forward framework has a chance to reverse that shift.
There are a couple of problems, however. A number of conservative Blue Dogs have joined with Republicans in opposing reforms. And by highlighting obstructionism, the Obama administration may be making members of its own party vulnerable.
The other issue may be more damaging. Republicans staked a huge bet on the president's failure in the midst of a crisis, and, with the economic pain continuing, that bet may be coming in. Boehner's response to the president this past week forecast the Republican tack: "Where are the jobs?"
And that's the unpalatable choice voters will face this fall. Return to the people and policies that, in Obama's words, drove "the country into a ditch," or stick with those people and policies that have yet to drive us out?
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.