While the right struggles with a lack of ideas and candidates on the extremes, liberals and Democrats are not in a particularly strong place going into the midterms either. Theories abound as to reasons for this, with the familiar return of most lefties favorite pastime - infighting -leading to round after round of finger pointing and blame casting If only we'd done things differently (take your pick if it was some specific legislative action or the Obama Presidency more generally), if only Democrats were more motivated, if only Obama showed leadership, if only the Congressional leadership was better... suggestions abound, all kind of true... and all, art this late date, kind of beside the point.
Just as Christine O'Donnell and the tales of witchcraft underscore the more general filings of the right to find ideas and candidates with broad appeal, the crystallising moment for the left came - to me, anyway - in the past couple of weeks, at the CNBC Town Hall that they held with the President where a widely seen exchange occured between the President and a self-described supporter:
Quite frankly, I’m exhausted. Exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the man for change I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now. I’ve been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people and I’m waiting, sir, I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet. While I thought it wouldn’t be a great measure, I would feel it in some small measure. I have two children in private school, and the financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family. My husband and I joked that we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs and beans era of our lives. And quite frankly, it’s starting to knock on our door and ring through that that might be where we’re headed.
And quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer honestly, is this my new reality?
To say that Obama's answer failed to satisfy the woman's concerns isn't in doubt: the woman herself said afterwards that she was not satisfied with his response. The President took the question - as he did with a number that day - to restate and reframe various accomplishments of the Administration. He went nowhere near the suggestions of disappointment and filure to see the change she, and others, were promised... and more pointedly, he didn't particularly her overall question, about the "new reality."
It's an unanswerable question really - partly from the suggestion of "do these jeans make me look fat" questions where no answer can really succeed, and partly because the likely answer that this is indeed our new reality, will satisfy no one.
The question, and the President's rambling, unsuccessful attempt to deflect an answer, in total go to the heart of the liberal conundrum at the heart of this election. It's not that, as some try to project, that the President, or Democrats more generally don't have accomplishments to point to, changes that, while imperfect, do represent some measure of progress, and it's not just that, as other suggest, that Americans are just too upset and/or disappointed in the current state of economic affairs to appreciate the usefulness of some government progress.
Instead, I think, the tension is most fundamentally that the last two years have been about Democrats in Congress and especially in the Administration answering questions that no one asked, and not answering the ones that were. In some sense those questions - about confidence, economic well being, and resistance to change - cannot really be answered, or the only answers can seem negative. But it's not as if, too often, anyone even tried.
That, in the end, is why the housing crisis has not been resolved to anyone's satisfaction, and why the economic problems that follow from it - the decimation of our consumer economy, and the "new normal" of so many having to make do with so much less - remain key factors in the lack of sustainable recovery. It's why the debate over taxes and the tensions over government spending have become proxy fights for unresolvable tensions about the size and purpose of government that have dogged this nation for hundreds of years.
It's unfair, and has been all along, to lay on the President sole responsibility for solving these problems or answering some of the most unanswerable questions. But still; we wouldn't be here in any sense if Democrats had set aside even one of their programmatic goals in favor of keeping the focus on the real life, practical problems so many people are struggling with in these hard times.
My own familiar example: rather than overly ambitious, overthought healthcare "reform" which has left most Americans confused and distrustful of "government mandated" solutions - and which will, in short order, run hard up against a number of ugly budget realities, as it is already; why not have pursued a tighter, more focused set of reforms that would have tried to curb Medicare's problematic fee for service failings, and restructured Medicaid as a federal program rather than block grants? The easy answer, which is that such reforms may well have failed to find broad appeal, misses the point: reforms which would have helped millions, had they failed, would have positioned Democrats as the last, best defenders of working people's needs, in a real, concrete way. That, in turn, could have spurred some of that absent energy to find Congressional majorities that would address those needs.
This isn't some essay, in some long series, to say "I think Obama was a bad choice all along and oh how I wish we had Hillary Clinton". If part of the lesson here is to say that the President isn't turning out to be the change agent touted by his most ardent supporters, I think the mistake was buying that on the first place, which is what I've said all along. President Obama may be a deep disappointment in terms of artificially high expectations; in the world of more realistic expectations, he's been a mixed bag of modestly interesting ideas, and some stirring speeches none of which quite gets the job done. If Democrats can do better... there's not much to show it. Until someone figures how to better answer the unanswered questions, disappointment and internal dissension are sure to drive a lot of left-side discussions in the coming months and years. And if Democrats don't get it together...someone, somewhere is going to answer those unanswered questions, somehow. Not necessarily in the ways many of us might like, either.