Team Obama has had 24 hours to spin the GOP victory in Anthony Weiner’s longtime Democratic Brooklyn seat as having nothing to do with the President. This was also its strategy after Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts in January 2010, an outcome we were told did not foreshadow major Democratic losses the following November.
The problem is quite simple: while pundits touted a new “fighting Obama” after his recent jobs speech, voters no longer believe in the President’s effectiveness. With poverty at record levels, a stagnant economy, and high unemployment, they concluded that Obama still has not gotten the message that fighting for jobs and pushing higher taxes on the wealthy means more than giving a strong speech.
Were many really surprised that a Republican won a special election in a longtime Democratic-controlled Brooklyn congressional district? With the President still ignoring cries from his base for confrontational and dramatic action, did anyone really expect those Brooklyn Democrats to be highly motivated to get to the polls?
Unlike pundits who trumpeted what CNN described as Obama’s ‘Give ‘em hell, Barry’? jobs speech last week, Brooklyn voters and those nationally do not believe that “Obama appears to have channeled Harry Truman.”
Obama attacks “partisan bickering” – not Republicans – so it’s easy to understand why voters would not see Republican obstructionism as the chief problem when they go to vote. When Truman was president, he left no doubt that Republicans were on the wrong side. Unlike Obama, he did not sacrifice his agenda for “bipartisanship.”
The President Who Cries Wolf
Obama has a history of giving a strong speech promising to lead the fight for change and then fading when the going gets tough. We saw this on health care, his alleged commitment to allow Bush tax breaks for the wealthy to expire, and his promise to only accept a debt-ceiling deal that combined spending cuts with revenue increases.
Despite Obama’s pattern of promising leadership and then caving to Republican demands, even cynical New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd titled her post jobs speech column “Sleeping Barry Awakes.” Dowd felt that “Obama, heeding plummeting polls and beseeching voices from his despairing base, finally deigned to get tough.”
SEIU, betrayed by Obama on health care, immigration reform and the Employee Free Choice Act, also put history aside and confused an Obama speech with leadership. SEIU President Mary Kay Henry stated, “President Obama displayed the leadership America needs by laying out a strong agenda to get America back to work.”
Unfortunately for Obama and fellow Democrats, the electorate understands that giving a speech is different from displaying leadership. Leadership is what happens after the speech is given. It involves mobilizing power to achieve the goals laid out in the speech, something Obama has rarely done since taking office.
Only presidential actions can convince voters that Obama’s jobs speech was more than the latest example of crying wolf. Voters are tired of spin, which was Obama’s message on the 2008 campaign trail and will be Rick Perry’s theme in 2012.
The progressive enablers who think positive reassurance is the best way to move Obama in a more politically and policy savvy direction are wrong. Labor, environmental and progressive on-line activist groups need to take public their private criticisms of Obama’s lack of fighting spirit, or else face a repeat of the New York congressional outcome in districts and states across the nation in 2012.
Randy Shaw’s most recent book is Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.