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Saving Progressivism from Obama

Progressives must move from disillusion to action and offer the kind of political movement and counter-narrative that the President should have been leading.

What's the worst case, and the best case, that we can imagine for the next two years? Let's look at the economics first.

Republicans and the White House both seem determined to make the recession worse by reducing the budget deficit long before the economy is in recovery. The deficit commission's two co-chairs have proposed that the cuts begin in October 2011, when unemployment is still expected to be at least nine percent. The economy needs a massive fiscal jolt, and instead is likely to get austerity.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve's experiment with buying Treasury bonds in order to keep interest rates low is not working very well. Mainly, the policy seems to be annoying America's allies. Cheap money by itself won't fix the prolonged slump.

Obama's ill-fated Asia trip was intended to bring home a foreign policy victory to divert attention from the domestic economic and political carnage. But Obama failed to get the Koreans to agree to a (badly conceived) trade deal, and failed to get the G-20 leaders to agree to new strategy to pressure nations with big export surpluses to do more of their part to help the global recovery. An economically weakened America with a politically weakened president has less weight to swing around.

So as President Obama gears up for a re-election battle in 2012, the economy is unlikely to be much different than the one that sank the Democrats in 2010. The question is whether Obama and the Democrats can change the national understanding of what caused the economic collapse and who is blocking the recovery.

In this enterprise, I don't have high expectations for Obama. I cannot recall a president who generated so much excitement as a candidate but who turned out to be such a political dud as chief executive. Nor do his actions since the election inspire confidence that he will be reborn as a fighter.

The president's defenders offer an assortment of alibis for the epic defeat. The in-party always loses seats in the first mid-term (but not this many). The recession was far more protracted than anticipated (Obama's own chief economic adviser, Christy Romer knew how bad things were pressed for a much larger stimulus than Obama was willing to embrace.) The Republicans blocked him at every turn (yes, and he kept trying to conciliate rather than fight.)

Consider that the Democrats got particularly shellacked, as Obama put it, among the elderly. When you remember that the Republicans hope to gut Social Security, this is quite remarkable. When you add the fact that Democrats have been far more committed to defending Medicare than Republicans who want to turn it into a voucher, the sheer political malpractice of this election loss among seniors is just stupefying.

Because of the poor design of the Obama health plan, and the ineptitude of explaining or marketing it, older voters came away convinced that the scheme would come at the expense of their Medicare. Even today, as a fiscal commission appointed by Obama tries to take more money out of Medicare and Social Security, our president and his budget wonk advisers cannot bring themselves to draw a simple line in the sand and declare that the Democrats will never cut Social Security benefits. Had Obama done so before the election and dared the Republicans to match the pledge, dozens of Democratic House seats might have been saved.

And had Obama made clear that the real obstacle to comprehensive health reform and cost savings is the private insurance industry, not our one island of socialized medicine--Medicare--he might have clarified who is really on the side of America's seniors.

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