Losing the House so badly was a Democratic disaster of the highest magnitude. No rationalization of the defeat, no pipedream about the future will change that. Despite what happened on November 2, incumbents rarely lose office easily. Even a decisive Obama victory in 2012, powered by a recovered economy, is unlikely to dislodge so many Republicans. Some of the Know Nothing Tea Bags will probably be around for a while.
Obama does have a communications problem. He reminds me of Pierre Trudeau, the great prime minister of Canada. As a young man, Trudeau had toured Europe and witnessed fascism and nazism mesmerizing the fearful with promises of national glory. For the rest of his life he was repelled by the emotional demagoguery of politicians. He drained his political persona of emotion. When he set down his policies, he did not see the need to explain or repeat them. If Canadians did not understand him, he felt it was their problem, not his.
Of course, Obama, judging by his orchestration of campaign rallies, is not drained of emotion. I don’t believe he is a Pierre Trudeau. But he must learn to articulate our fears, share them and tell us how he is dealing with them. He has opportunity now. For much of the first two years, he was a legislative president, fretting over the fate of his bills in Congress. That job is mostly over. Now he must talk to us.
Although he was a legislative president, Obama was no Lyndon Johnson. Obama was oddly aloof from Congress as he sent aides up Pennsylvania Avenue to bargain and cajole. He hardly ever met with the Republican leaders. Johnson met with them all the time. He would even slip into what Sam Rayburn called his daily Board of Education meetings on Capitol Hill — an informal gathering over whisky of the Democratic and Republican leaders. Johnson not only courted leaders. He was on the phones with less important members. He invited all of them to parties and dances at the White House. Even Republicans would gush in their newsletters how their wives had danced with the President at the White House the other night. Obama needs to learn some of this.
It is galling to know that the Republicans were rewarded for two years of rank and unnatural obstruction. There is a lot of punditry about how much more power they now have to hamstring, stifle and frustrate Obama. It’s hard to know how far they really want to go in the next two years. But the Democrats must stop grinning and bearing it. They have to make it clear what the Republicans are up to. They have to make obstruction obvious and shameful.
It astonished me how the Republicans proved so adept at managing the debate in the campaign all the time. Repeal Obamacare. The stimulus did not work. Pelosi is a witch. The Democrats contented themselves with half-hearted defensiveness. Don’t repeal it. It did work. She isn’t. I suppose that is the difference between ideologues and pragmatists. Ideologues believe so strongly that they impress the people around them even when they believe in nonsense.
Ignorance appears to be the hallmark of the American voter. The numbers of Americans who believe that Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya and the numbers who believe the stimulus was bad for them is surely a national disgrace. But it is wrong to get hung up about this. The voters were right about the most important issue of the campaign. Americans were facing the most frightening and unsettling economic times since the terrible 1930s. Whether out of timidity or coolness, Obama failed to improve their lot or assuage their fears. They had every right to slap him down. The trouble is that the alternative will surely make things worse.