Lowered Expectations: The Way Back for Obama?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

[Note: In response to a comment on my post last Thursday, I promised to write something today about the cross-national evidence that supposedly supports the idea of "expansionary austerity," i.e., economic growth following cuts in government spending. I have decided to put off that discussion for another day in the near future.]

The standard pattern in presidential elections during the last thirty years or so has been for the Democratic nominee to distance himself from liberal positions and groups, especially labor unions, until the last two weeks of the campaign, at which point he starts to sound like the love child of Walter Reuther and Michael Moore. I know that some people would characterize this as a matter of rallying the base after (dishonestly) trying to sound like a centrist, but it is difficult to characterize any of the Democratic nominees post-McGovern (with the possible exception of Mondale, although I think even that is a stretch) as comfortable with the liberal wing of the party.

For example, when Michael Dukakis suddenly rediscovered liberal populism in the waning weeks of his ill-fated campaign in 1988, he started to surge in the polls; but he had squandered a 17-point post-convention lead essentially by refusing to defend any liberal position -- much less to call himself a liberal. (Remember his non-response to "the L-word"?) That goes far beyond strategic distancing.

It is now clear that President Obama's chances of re-election are becoming more daunting by the day. The burning question is whether there is a way for him to regain any momentum at all, or if he has so badly botched his presidency that there is nothing left for him to do. With the Republican field showing no signs of becoming any more sane -- or even coherent -- many Democrats apparently are hoping that Obama can win as "the candidate who is not certifiable." It is obvious, however, that a chronically weak economy has made all too many voters open to nearly anything that sounds different and angry. Obama needs an affirmative case for his re-election.

The most recent blip of hope among Democrats was based on Obama's speech last week, in which he announced his new plan to expand employment, the American Jobs Act. Commentators in the center and on the left immediately praised the speech, saying that Obama seemed to have found his fire once again. Even the praise, however, was somewhat muted, as nearly everyone seemed to be saying, "Yes, but is this just another false start, to be followed by more capitulation and passivity?" (I have to admit that I did not even watch the speech, because I refuse to get back on that roller coaster.)

The comedian Andy Borowitz perfectly captured the disaffection with Obama, writing in "The Borowitz Report" earlier this week that the Republicans had agreed to allow Obama to create one part-time job, with Obama calling their proposal "an example of what can be accomplished when we put aside partisan differences." Borowitz added that "[i]n order to secure funding for the part-time job, Mr. Obama had to cave to a series of Republican demands, including tax breaks for second homes and third wives."

The narrative is now unmistakable: Obama has no spine, and even when he acts as if he is going to grow one, no one believes that it will happen. That narrative was already gelling as the summer began, but Obama's complete bungling of the debt-limit fiasco set that negative assessment in stone. I wrote over the summer that it would have been a huge (but worthwhile) risk for Obama to invoke "the constitutional option" during the debt-limit standoff, but we now see in hindsight that the self-imposed damage from his spinelessness was much worse than any of us ever could have imagined.

One possible response would be for Obama to take the "last two weeks" strategy of recent Democratic nominees as his strategy for the next fourteen months. If the Republicans say government can and should do nothing, Obama could take his own rhetoric from Thursday night seriously, and propose concerted government action to turn the economy around. Nothing he proposes will pass anyway, so the choice is between continuing to propose things that sound centrist and reasonable (a strategy that has failed utterly so far), or moving toward an affirmative liberal agenda that can be defended on the merits. It doe not really matter that Obama has no apparent affinity for a strong liberal program, because none of the recent Democratic nominees did, either. He needs votes, and frankly, it is becoming clear that standing for something -- even "big government" -- is a more promising route to votes than standing for more compromise with implacable foes.

One could argue, however, that I have missed the headlines. Obama's jobs plan, we are hearing, was just the kind of bold plan that people like me have been awaiting, if only I would sit up and take notice. The editorial page of The New York Times is very impressed with the plan, having written two very strong editorials this week (here and here) extolling its virtues. They point to estimates that the plan could, if it were somehow passed, increase employment by 1.3 to 1.9 million jobs next year.

That many jobs are not to be dismissed, but a little perspective is in order. We are talking about a country with a labor force of more than 150 million people, meaning that the unemployment rate might go down by a little more than (or a little less than) 1% if the Obama plan were adopted. Eight percent unemployment is surely better than 9%, but that is hardly a strategy for electoral success. And given that we are talking about proposals that will never be enacted, why not propose something that could be defended as big enough for the task at hand?

Why, then, are the editors of the Times so excited? Even Paul Krugman, one of Obama's fiercest critics, wrote that the proposal is "much bolder and better than I expected. President Obama’s hair may not be on fire, but it’s definitely smoking" -- this, even after Krugman had detailed the weakness and lack of ambition of Obama's proposal.

If Krugman had merely said that the bill was "better than the worthless nonsense I've come to expect from these guys" (phrasing that is hardly beyond Krugman's level of bluntness), that would be one thing. Yet he actually went on to say that, "clearly and gratifyingly, [Obama] does grasp how desperate the jobs situation is." Having just told us that the proposal is far too small and includes tax cut proposals that are of questionable expansionary value, at best, it is difficult to see how Krugman reached that conclusion.

We thus have a new variation on the expectations game in politics. Normally, spin-meisters try to manipulate expectations (before a debate, for example), to try to lower expectations and thus make their candidate's ultimate performance look good. Here, even liberal and left-leaning commentators have become willing to adjust their expectations radically downward. The editors of the Times even denied that Obama had followed his usual pattern of "trimming his ideas to what he thinks he might possibly get," expressing their "relief to see him demanding that Congress do what the country really needs."

The late, under-appreciated comedy show "MadTV" had a series of skits called "Lowered Expectations" (one example here), about a dating service for people who were willing to settle for losers. Apparently, the new move for Obama supporters is simply to lower their expectations. It is one thing, however, to lower one's expectations about what is achievable in politics, but it is another thing entirely to convince oneself that Obama is bold and visionary, even while he continues to propose much-less-than-half-measures. Unfortunately, what Obama is willing to propose is unlikely to reignite support among voters. And even if he does somehow win next year, are we really willing to let the bar be set so low?