It would be easy to read too much into the few statewide races that were decided last night, but I think it’s fair to say that the results in New Jersey and Virginia, where Republican gubernatorial candidates won–in New Jersey’s case knocking off a well-funded Democratic incumbent–that the results were a blow to the Barack Obama/Rahm Emanuel strategy of playing to the right, of avoiding confrontation in Congress and of ignoring the progressive voters whose enthusiasm and effort back in the 2008 campaign put Obama in office.
Exit polls showed that many Obama voters sat out this election in New Jersey and Virginia, with turnout low in both races. In part that was because of local conditions, of course. In Virginia, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds ran as a conservative, and was attacked by the Republican candidate, former state attorney general Robert McDonnell, as a tax-happy liberal. With liberal voters in Virginia unenthusiastic about Deeds, and Republicans revved up, the loss was a foregone conclusion, even with Obama making two visits to campaign for Deeds, and with the national Democratic Party pumping in $6 million in campaign funding.
In New Jersey, incumbent Democrat John Corzine was wildly unpopular for raising taxes, so that even with Democrats holding an almost 2:1 registration advantage in the state (half of all voters are unaffiliated), he too had no enthusiastic backing from his former base. No amount of money poured in by the former Goldman Sachs chief executive could overcome the negative views of his record as governor.
But despite the lackluster candidates in both Virginia and New Jersey, I think it’s safe to say that there was also clear evidence that the losses, and the margins of the losses—huge in Virginia’s case, and significant in normally safely Democratic New Jersey—provide evidence that the Obama presidency, and the prevailing Democratic strategy of minimalist legislative initiatives on health care reform, global warming etc., expanded and unending war in Afghanistan, support for Wall Street and neglect of the one-in-five Americans who are unemployed or underemployed, are a political disaster in the making for Democrats in general and Obama in particular.
The president came into office on a wave of populist enthusiasm and high expectations for the “change” candidate Obama promised. No change has been forthcoming now for over nine months, and with the president now past the first-year anniversary of his historic election victory, the latest election results suggest that his presidency could already be headed for the rocks.
2010 is an election year that will see all seats in the House, and a third of the seats in the Senate up for grabs. Typically, a president’s party loses seats in that election even when things are going well. When things are not going well, the losses can be significant.
Obama had a chance, coming into Washington after a big rout of Republicans last year, to set out an agenda of major progressive change. He could have called for expanding Medicare to cover all Americans. Instead he handed health reform over to Congress and immediately put out the word that he was open to compromise with Republicans, thus dooming reform from the outset. He could have announced a thorough review of America’s two wars, and then set in motion a withdrawal form both Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead he dithered on Iraq, and added troops in Afghanistan, assuring that both these disasters inherited from the Bush/Cheney administration became his own disasters, which will now drag on through his whole term. He could have declared a global climate emergency, and announced a job-creating crash program to develop renewable energy in the US and to make the US a leader in renewable energy R&D. Instead, he did almost nothing in this critical area. As for the economic crisis, he could have taken a progressive stand against the abuses of Wall Street, ordered a criminal investigation of the banking class, broken up the big banks and established a new regulatory system to put an end to the era of casino capitalism. Instead, he put the bankers in charge of Treasury and poured trillions of dollars into the largest banks, allowing them to grow even bigger and more predatory.
Voters, their collective assets shrunken over the year by $14 trillion, understandably are left wondering how, aside from better verbal skills, this president differs from the last one. As for the Democratic Congress, with Democrats pretending that nothing can be done unless they have not just 60 seats in Congress, but perhaps 70 or 75 (enough to be able to survive the inevitable defection of conservative members of the party), they can’t do anything of consequence—a claim that only is true if, as is the case, the party’s leadership and the president are unwilling to punish those who break rank.
If Democratic and progressive independent voters feel the same way about Obama and the Democratic Congress next fall, it will be curtains for the Democrats and for Obama’s presidency, such as it is.
And you know what? It won’t matter much if that happens, because what we’re seeing is that having Obama in the White House, and Democrats “in control” of Congress doesn’t get you much in the way of progressive change.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org