I’ve discussed this with others who have commented on Eli Zaretsky’s recent post, “Why Obama Lost the Debate.” Now that the Biden-Ryan debate is history, it becomes more clear than ever to me that even when the Democrat shows up swinging, as Biden did and Obama didn’t, they miss a key point: they have let the Republicans change the conversation from the malfeasance and abuses of Wall Street to the Federal deficit and the imagined misdeeds of unionized public employees.

Like Bertram Miller, one of those I engaged with at Eli’s post, I’m a tremendous fan of the Nobel Prize-winning economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman. From day one of the Obama term, Krugman pointed out that the size of the stimulus package that was passed within the opening weeks of the Obama administration would be too small to turn the economy around completely and thereby create an opening that would be deftly exploited by the Republicans claiming that government spending not only doesn’t work but also is a problem in itself. Some voices within the administration–including, surprisingly, the oft-reviled Clinton-era hand, Larry Summers–agreed that the package was too small, but support in the Senate seems honestly to have been inadequate for something bigger. Unlike Bertram Miller, I don’t think that the 60-vote filibuster hurdle could have been transcended through a budget-reconciliation maneuver, which is designed for a more narrow and specific purpose than this huge piece of legislation. But the administration has fallen down in not explaining and then vigorously defending what it was doing.

The Democrats have needed all along to defend the principle of smart, socially and economically useful governmental expenditures, especially at this time of severe economic downturn. They kind of do that, but not very clearly and without the relentlessly effective simplicity of the GOP’s small government/free enterprise sloganeering. If one can forgive the militaristic tone of “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,” which Biden coined at about the time of the Democratic National Convention, this is a good counter slogan. But how ever this message is worded, it needs to show the administration’s concrete achievements (literally) in infrastructure and other spending to staunch the headlong slide into another Great Depression. For example, how is it that the Dems haven’t energetically pointed out that in not renewing the subsidies to the states in the original stimulus legislation, the Republicans have forced the layoff of a half million state and local civil servants, including many teachers, firefighters and police?

And in its national educational focus, instead of emphasizing a dubious “reform” agenda that criticizes teachers and their unions (although not quite as nastily as the GOP does), the Dems should be leading a national effort to extol and upgrade the teaching profession in status, training and financial reward–as well as the idea of public service in general–as an attractive alternative career path for our brightest young people.

Allow me to conclude by quoting one of my comments at Eli’s post:

As journalist Michael Grunwald indicates in his book, “The New New Deal,” about Obama’s stimulus package, his administration has done a good (even impressive) job of steering the country back from economic catastrophe. But just as in the debate, Obama is AWOL when it comes to explaining what he’s been doing.

Some policies can certainly be criticized from a progressive point of view, especially in foreign policy. But his failures in domestic policy are mostly “political” in the sense of not getting the politics right of rebutting relentless Republican attacks and explaining to the country how “Big Government” can and must do good things.

Eli Zaretsky is correct that Obama is not a leftist, but what’s more baffling and damaging to the country is that he’s not defending his record as a liberal in the tradition of the New Deal.


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