Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Facts of Political Life: October 2010

Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives alike have one thing in common right now - they are all immersed in elaborate illusions about reality.

Democrats and liberals want to deny that disaster awaits them in the 2010 midterm elections.

Republicans and conservatives want to believe that their impending triumph in the 2010 midterm elections means that the people are applauding their party. In addition, they insist on interpreting that as a national rebuke of liberalism.

The only thing that both groups seem to agree upon is the belief that Barack Obama's presidency has been an abject failure, although the two part ways when it comes to why they believe this to be the case.

It is time for all four of these illusions to be dispelled with some basic political facts.

1) The Democratic Party is in for a whopping. All signs suggest that voter turnout among our base voters will be at unprecedented lows; conversely, enthusiasm within the Republican grassroots is at unparalleled highs. This alone would bode ill for us, but unfortunately, it's exacerbated by the fact that independents and other swing voters - the people who decide the outcomes of those key Senate and House races that ultimately determine which party controls Congress - are extremely dissatisfied with Barack Obama's performance. It is hard enough for an incumbent president's party to win midterm elections even when his performance is popular; when he's unpopular, the task becomes virtually impossible. This axiom has been born out repeatedly in our political history, and virtually every poll from the past few months confirms that it's about to happen again.

2) While Republicans are indeed about to make considerable gains in both houses of Congress, polls make it very clear that disapproval of their party and ideology is extraordinarily high, and that they are in an advantageous position not because they are popular but because their adversaries (Obama and the Democrats) are simply more unpopular. To use the popular cliche, they are being elected as the lesser of two evils.

3) Dissatisfaction with Obama has nothing to do with his ideology. As poll after poll has shown, the issue that dominates the minds of American swing voters is the health of our economy, and more specifically the need to lower our unemployment rates. These surveys have also shown that swing voters are relatively indifferent as to how that lowering of unemployment is achieved - a success via liberal means is just as acceptable to them as a success via conservative means. What matters to them is that the desired result is attained, regardless of the ideological route pursued in order to attain it.

This is a lesson to which Republicans, for their own sake, should pay close attention. As events past and present have shown, the way to reduce unemployment during periods of recession is through stimulus spending that pumps into the economy whatever amount of money is needed to compensate for the lack of healthy GDP growth. In this recession, the stimulus required to achieve that result would amount to $2 trillion.

Obama had the right idea when he included stimulus spending in his economic recovery bill back in February 2009. Unfortunately, the amount he spent on stimulus was too small - $500 billion, only one-fourth of the required amount. The good news is that this was enough to keep unemployment from drastically rising once the bill began to take effect in May 2009; the bad news is that it was nowhere near enough to actually reduce unemployment, which is why it has consistently hovered 9% and 10% in the year-and-a-half since then.

That said, Republicans propose not to increase stimulus spending to necessary levels, but to abandon all stimulus spending entirely. Recent events show that such a move would be an unmitigated disaster; during the first eight months of our current economic crisis (September 2008 - May 2009), unemployment rose a whopping 3.2% because no stimulus was being pumped into the economy. Given that rate, had Obama's stimulus not been put in place, unemployment would be between 16% and 17% right now, instead of between 9% and 10%.

The relevance of this is simple: Republicans, by controlling Congress, will have the power to block any future stimulus spending that Obama deems necessary. Since the current stimulus is about to run out, the chances are very strong he will need to propose another one in 2011, and if Republicans oppose it (as is likely), the end result will be the very explosion in our unemployment rate that was narrowly avoided by the first bill.

When this possibility is pointed out, Republicans tend to respond that either (a) the American people won't care that economic conditions are worsening so long as they thwart Obama's liberalism with their own conservative agenda or (b) they will simply blame the explosion of unemployment on Obama. The first belief is ridiculous, as pointed out before, and the second ignores the fact that Americans - while upset that things weren't getting better under Obama - at least knew that they weren't getting worse under him as well. If they reach the conclusion that Obama's ability to keep the economy from further deteriorating is being hindered by Republican obstructionism of his stimulus measures, their anger will be directed against them, not the president.


4) Obama's presidency has not been a failure. In fact, a brief look at the legacy of his first twenty-one months in office shows a list of impressive successes, the top three of which include:

- Passing a stimulus bill that prevented the economic recession from becoming much worse than it did.

- Passing a health care reform bill that provides insurance for thirty-two million Americans, outlaws many of the unjust and discriminatory practices once commonly committed by insurance companies, and reduces the budget deficit by $1.3 trillion.

- Ending the war in Iraq, a military conflict that many thought would go on indefinitely and which created bitter divisions at home and deep resentment against our country abroad.

These three achievements alone guarantee that Obama's reputation in history will contain much of which his admirers can be proud.

"Perhaps we could afford a Coolidge following Harding. And perhaps we could afford a Pierce following Fillmore. But after Buchanan this nation needed Lincoln; after Taft we needed Wilson; and after Hoover we needed Franklin Roosevelt."
- John Kennedy

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