[Update 11/4: Says it all.]
What happened: Voters gave Barack Obama and the Democrats a chance to demonstrate that they could operate the machinery of government effectively and in the public interest. Most Americans, myself included, have a pretty healthy distrust of big government; on the other hand, after the fiscal meltdown of '07 and '08, big-government intervention seemed not only necessary but about the only thing that could save the country from a serious economic calamity.
Two years later, IMHO the voters decided that, the crisis having passed — and yes, they understand that the Democrats get some credit for averting disaster, but nonetheless — there's no reason to leave the Democrats in charge and every reason to send them packing because they clearly do NOT know how to run the machinery of government effectively and in the public interest. And to repeat, most people think the machinery is dangerous in the wrong hands.
Is that too harsh a judgment? Yes, it is. Does it overlook the long list of good things the Democrats have accomplished? Yes, I suppose it does. But the fact that is such a long list — and quick, can you jot it down? because most of us can't — is part of the problem. Legislation went by in a blur without the President taking time or care to explain what he was doing. That's some of it. Another big part is that the one thing people did get about the Obama Administration is that the health-care reform act took too long to enact, was the product of endless deals with special interests, and at the end of the day, for all the good things it did, it came off as a typical 2.000-page Democratic Christmas tree of health-care giveaways.
Now, I'm not the best judge (or even a good judge) of the quality of all the stuff in the health care law. I do consider myself a good judge of the politics of it, however. Obama lost his supporters early on when he didn't submit his own health-care bill — one that could've and should've been based on the bill he described when was running for president — but rather let such self-dealing Democrats as Max Baucus and Ben Nelson write it for him. And take a year doing it.
Meanwhile, the Republicans needed only to say to THEIR constituents: "The thing is 2,000 pages long. It doesn't take 2,000 pages to tell insurance companies that they can't turn away applicants because of pre-existing conditions and must let parents keep their kids on to age 26."
Bottom line: Folks watched how the Democrats dealt with that issue and they were horrified at what a mess the Democratic Party's become.
Obama's been criticized for being too liberal. I don't think he was liberal enough. What I think is that he missed his chance to pass a real (liberal) health care reform bill in a month, using budget reconciliation, with a public option as the centerpiece of a bill that should not have been more than 50 pages long. Pass the economic stimulus package first, pass health care reform in a month, and then move on to the next thing, and then the next thing, and don't forget to go on TV and explain what you're doing to your own 10 million supporters who were ready to go to war with you if only you'd let them.
Easy to second-guess, but does anyone remember Obama on a automobile factory floor pitching in alongside the union members whose jobs he protected by bailing out the auto industry? He probably did some such thing, but the only image I have in mind is of guys in suits — investment bankers and overpaid executives — in hush-hush meetings. Meetings that were explained to us not by a president determined to stand with the workers, but by Larry Summers and Tim Geithner and other Wall Street types who've never worked a dirty job in their lives.
Oh, and just to pile on, whatever happened to the idea that Obama supported and Hillary Clinton supported and forgive my bringing him up but John Edwards also supported — that the way to pay for health care reform was a repeal of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans? It surpasses belief, but two years into the Obama Administration, not only are those Bush tax cuts for the rich intact but they've never been put to a vote, or even to a determined effort by the President to get rid of them to reduce the deficit.
Not to mention immigration reform, DADT, EFCA and all the other ways Obama failed to follow through on the campaign promises that stitched his victorious Democratic constituency together.
No, I'm afraid what Obama's been is too cautious and too anxious to slap a temporary patch on every problem, but only after the patch is devised and handed to him by corporate interests, Wall Street bankers and the right-wing Democratic legislators who love them — or love their money.
Remember my premise: People don't assume that government is on their side; in fact, they assume — often rightly — that it's on the side of the rich and special interests. You can persuade them that you're bending it to their purposes, but only if: (1) you actually are, and (2) you're careful to bring folks along, step by step, as you bend it.
On the big issue of his first two years, Obama's health-care bill took too much time, filled up too many pages with unnecessary details, and left people wondering whether it was a good thing or not. And when I say people, I mean people like me who voted for Obama and support Obama.
On the other issues, the economy especially, Obama didn't explain, so the Republicans explained for him.
Their explanation: Obama is pissing our money down the drain.
Gee, you thought they'd tell the truth?
So what now? Obama will be re-elected in two years as the economy pulls slowly out of recession and unemployment drops to 7 percent, which is the new 5 percent in an era of globalization and outsourcing. No American politician is making a serious plans to restore full employment to the United States. Should they? Absolutely. Will they? Not until there's a third-party populist candidate who gets it that Americans want their jobs back and want corporate profits taxed to the max unless the money is invested in U.S. factories.
Or if the economy slips back into recession, Obama will not be re-elected. Is there enough stimulus baked into the U.S. economy already to avoid that happening? Paul Krugman says no, there isn't. I dunno; seems like we've put enough $$$ in to stave off recession for a few more years, albeit not enough to avoid a repeat of the jobless recovery that marked the George W. years from 2001-2007.
Either way, however, we are in for a repeat of the Bill Clinton presidency, when a failure of Democratic opportunity in the first two years ('93-94) led to steady gains by the Republican Party in Congress, in state governorships and in the state legislatures. Clinton was re-elected, but he was thereafter captive to Republican policies, and the Democratic Party faded over the last four years of his presidency and the first six years of George W.'s. So, too, did such staples of Democratic thinking as progressive taxation, environmental stewardship, investments in infrastructure, fair trade, labor rights, women's rights, civil rights, and one more thing: Being frugal with the taxpayers' money.
Only when a serious recession struck — with Bush still in the White House — were voters persuaded that it was time to give the Democrats another chance, which they did in '08 but now are disinclined to extend.
For the next two years, Obama will be captive to Republican policies he didn't work smart enough to get rid of when the getting rid of was good (e.g., tax cuts for the rich, free trade with China).
Only when there's another serious recession that hits while a Republican is in the White House will Democrats get another chance like they had after '08.
Am I being too gloomy?
Sure, about half of Obama's '08 constituency stayed home yesterday; and sure, many of them will return to the polls for the next presidential election. But they will return, I fear, just as unexcited about the prospects of real progressive reforms as Clinton's re-election voters were in '96. Unexcited, or else convinced by the Republican/Big Money rhetoric that progressive policies can never work and that Obama's first two years are the evidence that they can't — even though Obama's first two years were marked by a failure to try them.