As Republicans move toward nominating the electable Mitt Romney, disaffected Democrats are trying to generate enthusiasm for President Obama. But Obama is not making it easy. Last week, the President announced plans to send 2,500 troops to Australia – purportedly to “send a message” to China. He also renewed his call for a “grand bargain” to cut Medicare, Social Security, and domestic programs, and his administration told the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that veterans had no due process right to challenge the VA’s systemic failures to treat mental health injuries.
It was also reported last week that Obama’s recent highly promoted new deportation policy, the one that supposedly would not deport non-criminals, is “unevenly applied.” Those expecting Obama to take actions to rally his base for 2012 will be disappointed; Obama still plans to focus on politically independent voters while using fear of a right-wing takeover to keep progressives in line.
For all the talk about seniors, working people and the middle-class having to make “hard sacrifices” due to the budget deficit, President Obama continues to expand costly military engagements around the globe. Democrats and organized labor would have deemed the notion of the United States having to send troops to the South China Sea to protect Australia from China destructive and outright loony under Bush-Cheney; but all remain silent when Obama commits such acts.
The Fear Factor
I spoke to a class on activism at UC Santa Cruz last week. I asked how many of the 50 students were enthusiastic about President Obama’s re-election campaign. None raised their hand. I asked how many had been enthusiastic in 2008 – and while many were not voting then, the vast majority raised hands and nodded.
The students described their disappointment with Obama, particularly on failing to create jobs (an overwhelming issue as students graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt). One student said that she was not enthusiastic about Obama, but based on what she was hearing from Republicans she was getting afraid.
I told her that’s what Obama’s campaign team was counting on. And after Democrats spend hundreds of millions of dollars on television ads honestly detailing Republican plans for the country, she and other disaffected Obama supporters will justifiably be scared.
Consider Obama’s Latino strategy. Obama told Univision News at a White House meeting on November 9, “I don’t think it requires us to go negative in the sense of us running a bunch of ads that are false, or character assassinations. It will be based on facts … We may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim. We won’t even comment on them, we’ll just run those in a loop on Univision and Telemundo, and people can make up their own minds.” Obama feels that he can get Latino votes by exposing Republicans, without promoting his own (weak) record on Latino concerns.
SEIU endorsed Obama last week, apparently uninterested in using their endorsement to help pressure the President to act on labor’s goals. With Republican Senators now expressing opposition to the very existence of the National Labor Relations Act, fear that a Republican President and Congress could repeal the 76-year old law will prove a powerful motivating force for pro-union voters to get on the Obama bandwagon.
A Risky Strategy
Democrats’ track record of winning elections through generating fear rather than inspiring hope is not good.
I can’t tell you how many Democrats insisted that the American people would never elect Ronald Reagan in 1980 because he was too extreme. But against a Democratic President Jimmy Carter who had alienated the party’s core base, Reagan easily won and the GOP unexpectedly also took control of the Senate.
And as much as Democrats tried to scare voters against giving George W. Bush another four years, he actually prevailed against John Kerry due to voters’ belief that he would do better at keeping Americans safe (i.e., stronger against terrorism)
Most current Republican Senators won races in which their opponents argued that their right-wing views were too extreme. And Tea Party supporters took control of the House in 2010 by aggressively promoting right-wing ideas.
Democrats from Roosevelt, through Kennedy, Clinton and Obama, win presidential victories by inspiring hope. And while the fear factor will be greater than ever in 2012, Obama and the Democrats take a huge risk by putting all their eggs in the fear basket.
Occupy and the Presidential Election
There is more hope in the nation despite a president who freely spends money on the military in Libya ($1 billion and counting) and Australia (cost still undetermined) but can’t seem to find any spare dollars to keep teachers employed. This hope has emerged from the Occupy movement, whose very growth is the surest sign of the President’s failure to bring “Change.”
Needing an agent of hope that Obama no longer provides, the Democrats’ attempted co-optation of Occupy has already begun.
Salon’s Glenn Greenwald brilliantly describes SEIU’s co-optation efforts through a campaign for Obama and Democrats it brands “Occupy Congress.” His central point is that SEIU’s effort to “cast the Democratic Party and the Obama administration as the vessel for the values and objectives of the Occupy movement is just dishonest in the extreme; in fact, it’s so extreme that it’s very unlikely to work.”
As I recently wrote, Occupy and labor activists are on a collision course over Obama’s budget policies even as union leaders like SEIU’s Mary Kay Henry announce their union’s support for the President. While the immediate smash-up over a Super Committee “grand bargain” has been averted—-the media calls the failure to cut Medicare and Social Security a “Super Fail” instead of the more accurate “Super Success”— Obama’s unwillingness to aggressively challenge the 1% on other tax and budget issues means that his agenda has little in common with Occupy.
I expect many Occupy supporters to spend time from Labor Day to Election Day in 2012 on statewide initiatives seeking to raise taxes on the 1% in order to fund schools and other vital needs. I can see Occupiers working hard on such electoral campaigns, which unlike Obama’s, will be truly directed at redressing income inequality and economic unfairness.
Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.