Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

It’s the Congress, Stupid: How Obama Won and why Romney’s Winning

In Class and Social Stratification, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on October 17, 2012 at 8:57 am

Like everyone else, I’m trying to decide what I think about the Presidential debate last night. Having just processed the revised draft of media interpretations this morning, I think one thing is now clear: Obama won the debate last night. He won it in several ways: He fought back and looked like he cared; he tripped up Romney on substantive points of partisan division; he deftly branded Romney a prevaricator; he stared him down on foreign policy in Libya; and he ended the show with a compelling dig about the 47%.

Even so, Obama is losing the fight. I still consider Obama the favorite to win the November contest, but even if he does win, he rather limps over the finish line unless he can mobilize a compelling narrative about how the economy works and what progressives would do with it to improve American and global standards of living.

You know what I mean. Many of you are dedicated Obama supporters and went into this debate breathless and perspiring in dread of a repeat performance of the first debate. When Obama fought back, you were excited and even more relieved, but when the topic came to the economy and what the candidates would do with it, you thought, “Obama’s not as good on this as he should be.”

Switch to the other side for a moment. For those who went into this debate skeptical or even critical of the President, Obama looked awful on the economy. His holster appears empty. He comes armed only with arguments about what kind of tax cut he would pursue and what measures he would take to shrink the deficit. It’s like he’s searching for the best rock ballad to sing in the Sunday choir. The form doesn’t fit the context.

Only at the end of the debate when the President began to articulate an investment theory of public goods did anything like a progressive alternative on the economy begin to emerge from the mist of Obama’s thinking:

CROWLEY: Let me to go the president here because we really are running out of time. And the question is can we ever get — we can’t get wages like that. It can’t be sustained.


OBAMA: Candy, there are some jobs that are not going to come back. Because they are low wage, low skill jobs. I want high wage, high skill jobs. That’s why we have to emphasize manufacturing. That’s why we have to invest in advanced manufacturing. That’s why we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got the best science and research in the world. And when we talk about deficits, if we’re adding to our deficit for tax cuts for folks who don’t need them, and we’re cutting investments in research and science that will create the next Apple, create the next new innovation that will sell products around the world, we will lose that race. If we’re not training engineers to make sure that they are equipped here in this country. Then companies won’t come here. Those investments are what’s going to help to make sure that we continue to lead this world economy, not just next year, but 10 years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now.


CROWLEY: Thanks Mr. President.




CROWLEY: Governor Romney?


ROMNEY: Government does not create jobs. Government does not create jobs.

Is that right?  Are is no such thing as a public good? Is there no such thing as Keynesian stimulus? How about industrial policy? The state as countervailing power to capital? Romney has a secret plan for cutting the deficit and promoting growth, but Obama’s plan for progressive reform is shrouded, one supposes, even in his own imagination. Does he really offer us a choice in content in contrast to Bush and Romney or is his little more of an echo of conservative economic thinking with a heavy dose of process innovation?

You can see what a spine of steel the guy can have when he does believe in something, like killing Osama Bin Laden or taking a tough line on anti-American violence, but this only reveals how tepid he is on things about which he cares less. The Obama stimulus in 2009 was, as critics charged, a Christmas tree of defrayed liberal demands that reflected no principled view of economic change. There was no injustice he was fighting and no villain to mobilize against. Obama organized the Congressional community to produce a wish list of reforms that were implemented by partisan fiat. Consequently, he converted no one the cause of progressive economic reform and lost an opportunity of a generation to guard the gates of democratic civilization from the hordes of casino capitalists now poised to ransack it. Conservatives can breathe a sigh and prepare to work the story for the next four years of partisan gridlock and economic stagnation.

Is there any hope for progressives? Of course there is. Obama needs to go large in the next debate. By this I don’t mean he has to channel the ghost of Harry Hopkins; he doesn’t have to change what he believes. Instead he has to stick to his moderate reform agenda but also propose a theory of change that people can understand; he needs to spell out the logic of how a change in experimental factor x will translate into a change in outcome y. To do this he needs an x to change. What’s that x? It’s the Congress stupid! He needs to start looking through his opponent, whose fractured base should have made him a non-threat anyway, and propose to the people some reason why they should believe that Washington will be different in his second term than it was after the Tea Party revolution. What people doubt in the President is not the wisdom of his Spock-like approach to economic growth, but rather his ability to stand down the bully on economic terms just as he does with foreign policy.

Romney has his line,

You heard what I said about my tax plan. The top 5 percent will continue to pay 60 percent, as they do today. I’m not looking to cut taxes for wealthy people. I am looking to cut taxes for middle-income people. And why do I want to bring rates down, and at the same time lower exemptions and deductions, particularly for people at the high end? Because if you bring rates down, it makes it easier for small business to keep more of their capital and hire people.

Romney is going to do something big with the tax code and, boy, it will change something. Who knows what kind of change it will be, but Romney’s got a theory than plenty of people out there to believe his story about what that change will be. Romney’s experimental factor is lower rates, flatter structure. His y is higher growth.

Obama’s got no x, or at least no change, no delta, in his x and therefore people are right to suspect that we will four more dreadful years of the same darn thing we have had the past two. Obama needs to go Harry Truman on Romney tail and spin out a do-nothing Congress line for the closing argument, audaciously demanding that the people give him a Congress he can work with or they can start practicing their Mandarin (a good idea anyway by the way). WIll it happen, probably not, but if he had the glands to make us believe, we would have a little less Hillary Clinton remorse than we now do.


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