This was timid corporate liberalism, RIP.
Obama was given a mandate for change, and he squandered it.
He never mobilized the base to take on the vested interests.
Example: health care. He didn’t call people to march on Washington for universal health care, or at least Medicare for all who want it. So a few tea party hucksters were able to hijack the debate. He didn’t even push Harry Reid to give the health care bill to Senator Tom Harkin’s committee, throwing it instead into the untrustworthy arms of Max Baucus.
As a result, an inferior law came on the books with some important insurance reforms in it, but it didn’t threaten the private health care providers or the pharmaceutical companies. And it didn’t deliver the immediate relief that most Americans needed.
On the jobs front, he refused to follow the lead of Christina Romer, head of his Council of Economic Advisers, or the recommendations of Nobel Prize winners Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. All three said he needed a stimulus package that was at least 50 percent larger than the one he proposed. Nor did he propose a new WPA, like FDR did when the country faced a similar, if not quite so staggering, free fall. Obama was afraid to come on too strong. So he came on too weak.
Same on the banking front. Obama could have, and should have, nationalized Bank of America and Citibank, or at the very least, compelled them to halt foreclosures and write down the principal on all their mortgages by 25 or 30 percent. But Obama didn’t get anything from the banks in exchange for the hundreds of billions of dollars the Treasury doled out, and the trillions in guarantees. And so the bankers laughed all the way to the vault, and even some Republicans scored by running commercials against Democrats who voted for the bailout.
Same on the environment. Obama sold out the cause at Copenhagen, and with amazingly bad timing he came out for offshore drilling just weeks before the BP disaster, in hopes, again, of getting concessions from Republicans and from industry.
His messaging was as poor as his governing. First he blamed the Wall Street CEOs for their obscene bonuses; then he called them “very savvy businessmen,” adding: “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system.”
Similarly, on the budget, first he argued for deficit spending; then he said we need to cut the deficit in half by the end of his term.
This was confusing to millions of Americans, dispiriting to the base, and diverting to his enemies.
But basically, he didn’t give people enough tangible benefits to say, OK, I’m with him. He’s helped me. I’ll vote for Democrats again.
You can’t tell an unemployed person that you’d have been twice as unemployed without my help. You need to give that person a job now.
You can’t tell an elderly person you’re closing the donut hole on prescription drugs—by the year 2020. You need to close it now.
You can’t tell an adult with a pre-existing condition that you’ll force insurance companies to cover you—by the year 2014, when you may be dead. You need to cover people now.
You can’t tell families being foreclosed upon that you’re trying hard to keep them in their homes. You need to keep them in their homes now.
But to do any of that, Obama would have had to confront corporate power head on. But he, and Rahm Emanuel, and Larry Summers, and Tim Geithner were unwilling to do so and ideologically unprepared to even consider it.
They lived by corporate liberalism. And Democrats around the country died by it.