President Obama is holding up remarkably well against his potential Republican challengers, despite low approval ratings. The economy is in a state of disarray with wild swings in the stock market and evidence that we may be heading into a second recession. Politically, it could not happen at a worse time for the president as he gears up for re-election.
However, history shows that when Democrats stand for middle class voters, they win elections. Franklin D. Roosevelt won four consecutive terms as president in the 1930s and 40s, despite entering during the Great Depression, which did not completely end until our entrance into World War II. A lot of this had to do with the public’s trust in the president that he was looking out for their interests against a Republican Party that looked out for big-business.
Wisconsin is a prime modern-day example of this. Republicans rode into office in 2010 with a message about economics and jobs. They quickly turned towards dismantling unions, a traditional protector of the middle class, despite the fact that they never even ran on it. The result: a historic six Republicans in the state senate faced recall elections. Two of them were defeated and the other four were all under 60% in traditionally Republican districts. Democrats moved from a 19-14 minority with little power to a 17-16 minority that will effectively stop radical legislation.
Rick Perlstein, author of the new book Nixonland, writes about how defending the social safety net helps Democrats to win elections:
…there’s also a story in Nixonland about how the Democratic Party wins, why it loses and the good things that happen when the party gets the formula right. I surely hope Obama did not miss it.
It concerns the two major axes upon which major national elections get fought. Sometimes they become battles over the cultural and social anxieties that ordinary Americans suffer. Other times they are showdowns about middle-class anxieties when the free market fails. Normally, in the former sort of election, Republicans win. In the latter, Democrats do—as we saw in 2008, when the tide turned after John McCain said “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.
I hope that the president learns a thing or two from Perlstein’s book. His move towards what he perceives as the political middle with incessant talk about deficit-cutting has hurt his standing among middle class voters. There is no doubt that the country faces long-term deficit issues, but the jobs picture is far more serious and urgent. President Obama should pivot towards jobs by unveiling a bold and detailed jobs plan while at the same time defending programs like Social Security and Medicare that the middle class rely on. Take it to the American people. Dare the Republicans in Congress to rebuff your plan. Not only would it be good politics, it would be good for the country to see real economic leadership. We need it.