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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama and Carter

The most buzzworthy progressive commentary out there right now is without a doubt John Judis’ New Republic piece on the “Unnecessary Fall” of Barack Obama.
It’s essentially a summary of what Judis has been writing since the Obama inauguration, with growing urgency, and also the most impressive presentation of the “populist critique” of Obama as a politician who has missed crucial opportunities to mobilize middle-class support for policies aimed at curbing corporate power, instead becoming the symbol of corporate “bailouts” that have fed right-wing populism.
But while much of what Judis writes–particularly his examination of the political consequences of steps Obama took on TARP before even taking office–is very compelling, he goes too far, in my opinion, by comparing Obama’s “fall” to that of Jimmy Carter, another would-be “outsider reformer” who lost the allegiance of middle-class voters.
I suspect in using the Carter analogy Judis is encouraging Democrats to avoid the optimism associated with the most commonly cited Obama doppelganger, Bill Clinton, who, after all, was comfortably re-elected after the electoral disaster of 1994.
But the differences between Carter and Obama just can’t be ignored:
(1) Carter’s initial mistep, by most accounts, was ignoring the views and needs of congressional Democrats. Obama, by most accounts, has gone (if anything) overboard in consulting with and deferring to congressional Democrats.
(2) Carter was elected by a coalition that began to disappear the very day after the 1976 elections, thanks to his dependence on very conservative southern Democrats who supported him as a regional gesture but who truly belonged to, and soon migrated towards, the GOP. The main problem with Obama’s 2008 coalition is that it was disproportionately composed of demographic groups who rarely participate that much in midterm elections. But they aren’t going away in future presidential elections, and show no present signs of moving back towards the GOP.
(3) Despite his occasional efforts to place himself “above politics,” Jimmy Carter actually ran a 1980 general election campaign for a second term that was highly partisan and populist. Indeed, it was so abrasive that it helped Ronald Reagan, the veteran of nearly twenty years of right-wing politics, come across as a unifying figure. It’s not clear yet how Obama is going to present himself in 2012, but he certainly still has every approach available, including those that folks like Judis have been urging on him all along.
You should read Judis’ full account carefully, and make your own judgment as to whether Obama’s approach to Wall Street was dictated by the realities of a capitalist economy in which propitiation of financial markets by the White House is the only way to avoid complete economic catastrophe, or instead the by-product of a non-confrontational politician advised by people too close to the problem.
But I personally think Judis is judging the political trajectory of the Obama presidency far too hastily, and projecting a Carter-like “fall” that could look very different not far down the road, when right-wing populists are exposed for their anti-middle-class agenda, and Democrats regain their authentic voice.

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