Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 15 March 2022




Like so many others, I was inspired by Obama himself and by what his election seemed to say about America. In critically important ways, he did fulfill the hopes invested in him. He led the country through one of its darkest moments, providing calm and honest leadership in spite of an ugly racist backlash and Republicans’ determination to make him fail. Surely, he deserved some credit for the economic recovery that took place during his administration.

But working people were in so much trouble that they weren’t giving anybody credit. In my surveys, 60 percent said the biggest economic problem was “jobs that don’t pay enough to live on,” and in my focus groups, workers continued to be angry about upper-class greed and corporations “selling out our jobs.” They believed Obama’s principal policy to rescue the economy was the bailout of the Wall Street banks that had “played with our money.” The Obama administration’s failure to prosecute the banks’ CEOs just confirmed the nexus between Wall Street and Washington.

Obama embodied the forces making America a multiracial nation, and many Democrats—and Republicans—came to assume that those trends would ultimately make the Democrats politically and culturally ascendant. But it didn’t turn out that way, and it may not.

Despite a deepening economic crisis, Obama didn’t talk much about the economy in his 2008 campaign.

The economic crash and bailout, the continuing economic struggles of working families, and the first Black president proved a toxic combination. In 2009, the racially inflected reaction against Obama triggered the Tea Party movement that formed to stop his economic recovery plan and the Affordable Care Act. Racial resentment helped turn the Republican Party into a vehicle for the restoration of white America—indeed, the level of racial resentment in polls hit highs not seen since 1968 when George Wallace and Richard Nixon ran their overtly racist campaigns.

Many analysts believe racism explains almost everything, and Obama himself mused after 2016, “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.” But that misses how the Obama administration’s economic policy failed all working people. It took seven years from the 2008 crash for them to get back to their pre-crisis income level—that is, to where they were during Bush’s Gilded Age.

White working-class voters turned against the Democrats in 2010 and again in 2014, though in 2012 some were persuaded to vote for Obama against Mitt Romney, the very embodiment of corporate America. But Democrats didn’t just have a white working-class problem, they had a working-class problem. Democrats faced a pullback from their predominantly working-class base of Black, Hispanics, millennials, and unmarried women—the bloc I labeled the “Rising American Electorate” in my analysis of shifts in public opinion.

In 2010 and 2014—together with my wife, Rep. Rosa DeLauro—I watched President Obama make final campaign appeals, the first time at a rally in a Black neighborhood, the second time at a Hispanic one, both in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In one of those speeches, Obama invited laughter, not anger, about the state of the economy. He seemed bemused as he told the crowd that after driving the car into “a very steep ditch,” Republicans “walked away from the scene of the accident” before Democrats got the car up on level ground. “Finally,” he said, “we have this car pointing in the right direction” and now Republicans wanted the keys back.

On those and other occasions, Obama did not give voice to the hurt and anger that working-class voters were feeling. He asked them to turn out so that Democrats could keep the economy pointed in the “right direction.” In Bridgeport, I thought that the crowd listening to him must have asked themselves, what planet is he on? People in my research thought they were still deep in the ditch dug by George Bush, made even deeper by the Great Recession. Obama called out the Republicans for not helping and made no mention of the greedy corporate interests that angered so many working people.

Working people did not interpret rising employment the way Obama did. When a moderator at my focus groups read the monthly jobs numbers, the participants demanded: “What was the average salary of those jobs?” “Where are those jobs?” “What type of jobs? Are they part-time? Yeah, fast-food jobs?” “Are these jobs people can live on?”

In recent elections, Democratic campaigns have used Obama as the closer, speaking at major rallies on pre-election weekends and election eve. This is an experiment, repeated over and over, with the same result. His rallies helped motivate Republican voters to vote but had disappointing results for Democrats.

The Obama years were the critical juncture when Democratic leaders stopped seeing the working class and feeling its despair and anger. They stopped advocating for workers against corporate excess and stopped challenging the exceptional corruption that allowed billionaires and Wall Street to dominate politics. The result is that the Democratic Party has lost touch with all working people, including its own base. When Obama himself was re-elected in 2012, he confirmed for Democrats that he was a successful president. But he wasn’t a success in building a long-term majority. In every election while he was president, Democrats took losses. Republicans gained control over half of America’s states, and Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, succeeded him in office.

Obama was one of the few presidents in our history to win re-election with a reduced margin. He lost white millennials after winning them in 2008, but he had the good fortune to have Romney as his opponent. To Hispanic voters, Romney was the Republican who asked them to “self-deport.” And Romney’s time at Bain Capital gave Obama a rare chance to slam Wall Street and the indifference of the rich to ordinary working people. In post-election polls, a majority said the biggest reason to vote against Romney was that he was for the rich.

But the 2012 election didn’t change the political trends. Democrats suffered major losses in the 2014 midterms, even though Republicans weren’t responding to working-class discontent either. They supported all of Obama’s trade deals hurting their own working-class base. Republican voters were only slightly less disengaged than Democrats.

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