Democrats face a dilemma in 2016: How do they deal with the Obama presidency, and particularly the Obama economy? As the early primaries have shown, Americans are in a surly mood, with the economy at the center of their concerns. The Obama administration naturally wants Democrats to brag on its record. Republicans, of course, blame President Obama for everything under the sun. My Post colleague E.J. Dionne Jr. argues that Democrats will “undercut” their “chances of holding the White House” if they don’t defend the progress made under Obama and proclaim that the United States is “in far better shape economically than most other countries in the world.” But this morsel of conventional wisdom ignores what is going on in the country.
No doubt Obama deserves some credit. He inherited an economy that was in free fall and turned it around. Topline unemployment has been cut by more than half by a record number of consecutive months with job growth. We’ve witnessed the first indications of wages ticking up. Health-care reform has provided health protections for millions who lacked them before, particularly with the expansion of Medicaid. Financial reform has at least provided consumers with their own cop on the beat with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And all was accomplished in the face of unrelenting Republican obstruction.
But the anger of American voters isn’t unfounded. This economy still doesn’t work for most Americans. Most households haven’t recovered from the financial collapse. The median household wealth of black families — now a bleak $11,000, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center report — was cut almost in half by the collapse and hasn’t recovered. Working families know that they have been savaged by ruinous trade policies that Obama supports. Banks got bailed out, and they are bigger and more concentrated than ever, but homeowners were abandoned. Insurance and drug companies and private hospital complexes still force Americans to pay obscene sums for their health care.
And this economy could get worse before most Americans feel the recovery. Gross domestic product growth last quarter was estimated at 0.7 percent. Across the world we see Japan in decline, China slowing, Europe stagnant at best and Russia and Brazil headed into depression. Whether the United States can remain an island of slow growth in a troubled world remains to be seen.
What Democrats better learn — and learn fast — is that more and more people get that the rules have been rigged for the very few. They see the corrupted politics, the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington. They see that entrenched interests clean up while average Americans get cleaned out. And increasingly, Americans are in revolt against the establishments of both parties that have led us down this road.
That is the power of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Donald Trump. Sanders’s populist challenge, of course, is clear. Sanders always praises Obama for bringing the economy out of its free fall, but his focus is on the rigged economy and corrupted politics that remain. And his surge in the polls is startling. Six months ago, Nevada was a walk for Hillary Clinton. Two months ago, she led by nearly 25 percent. Her campaign manager wisely threw operatives into this caucus state six months ago. And on Saturday, Sanders nearly beat her, once more racking up stunning margins among young voters. He even won a majority of Hispanic voters, to whom he was just introducing himself.
On the Republican side, Trump’s message is equally clear. In his victory address, he touted his self-funded campaign, independent of the “special interests and lobbyists and donors” who tell politicians what to do. He assailed our trade policies — with China, “the greatest single theft in the history of the world” — and promises to bring the jobs back. In his stump speech, he frequently scorns the big banks and promises to protect Social Security and Medicare. “It’s a movement,” he proclaims, to “make America great again.”
In South Carolina, Trump took on his opponents, former president George W. Bush, the pope, the governor and both senators, and legislators — and still won by double digits. He even won a plurality of evangelical Christian voters. One of the top issues for voters was the economy, and Trump led there by double digits. Voters embraced him because they saw him as someone “telling it like it is,” as “an outsider,” as someone who would bring change.
In the wake of her drubbing in New Hampshire, Clinton chose to wrap herself in Obama, attacking Sanders for criticizing him. This move to bolster her strength among black voters seemed to pay off: Three-quarters of African American voters supported her, saving her from defeat in Nevada.
But like a good politician, Clinton also made her message far more populist. In her victory speech, she railed against “so much that isn’t working the way it should,” invoking grandparents who have to choose between rent and the medicine they need because of rapacious prescription drug companies. She’s revved up her opposition to “unaccountable money” in politics, promising to ensure that “Wall Street can never be allowed to threaten Main Street again.” And then she added her tailored appeals to various constituencies — equal pay for women, an end to “systemic racism” (without indicating how that will happen) and immigration reform.
In politics, plagiarism is a compliment; rhetorical theft a practiced art. And Clinton has learned, even as she sought to embrace Obama, that she had to develop her version of Sanders’s populism and call for a popular movement.
Democratic candidates enjoy a natural demographic advantage in this fall’s elections, as Republicans continue to offend the rising American majority — people of color, young people, single women.
The one challenge for any Democratic candidate is that he or she must be the candidate of fundamental change, not the candidate of continuity. The rules are still rigged; our politics still corrupted. Republicans stand in the way. Democrats will win if their voters come out to vote. And the only way to inspire that is to champion the change we need, not the progress we’ve made.