After Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, things were going to be different. Democrats pledged to start delivering tangible benefits to their base, and President Obama insisted that jobs would become his overwhelming priority. But since Brown’s “wake up call” Democrats appear content to wage symbolic battles rather than aggressively move to enact key legislation. Democrats cheered Obama's triumph over House Republicans during "Question Time," but this "victory," while emotionally satisfying, is no substitute for action. After all, if the President's popularity rubbed off on fellow Democrats, Martha Coakley would be heading to the Senate.
Consider the Democrats top concerns. Health care? “We’ll get to it sometime.” Comprehensive immigration reform? “It’s still a priority.” EFCA? Off the political radar screen. Climate Change? “We don’t have the votes.” The Budget? Freeze all domestic spending but education and research but protect defense.
Bipartisanship? President Obama still calls for it, still refuses to blame Republicans by name for the problems he inherited, and still leaves the public confused over which Party is to blame for gridlock in Washington DC. He may be the most intelligent politician around, but this is not smart politics.
Massachusetts was supposed to be a wake-up call that would lead the Obama Administration, the Democratic Party and Congressional leaders to start getting things done. But early signs are not good.
Consider the status of the top progressive priorities:
a new subplot each day, with no breakthrough appearing imminent.
Here’s what Obama said in his State of the Union speech: "we should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system - to secure our borders, enforce our laws, and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation."
Lou Dobbs could have made Obama’s first two points. His third point is a very thinly veiled endorsement of a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, something that likely went over the heads of those not involved in immigrant rights activism.
Obama’s failure to even use the term “legalization” is not encouraging. The President committed to moving on a legalization bill, it was a huge issue for the Latinos whose votes won Obama five key states in November 2008, and the Democrats either move heaven and earth to enact legalization or have little to sell Latino voters this fall.
Immigrant rights groups have not criticized the President’s lack of action. They either erroneously believe that avoiding criticism will spur Obama to act, or feel the President is powerless to fulfill his campaign pledge due to lacking 60 Senate votes (even though immigrant rights activists have long stated that their agenda was not partisan).
Having long assumed that Obama had to enact a path to legalization for 2010 political reasons alone, inaction is both morally and politically confounding.
Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA):
Wasn’t organized labor supposed to get something for the $120 million it gave to Democrats in 2008? President Obama did not even mention EFCA or labor law reform in his SOTU speech, so if labor members support for Brown against Coakley was a wake-up call, the Obama Administration did not hear it.
As Steve Early pointed out
in the Boston Globe
, prospects for any meaningful labor law reform are now up in the air. Yet labor leaders continue to cheer the President.
For example, here’s SEIU’s response to the speech that omitted any mention of labor law reform:
“Tonight, President Obama gave a dramatic reminder of why so many of us joined his unprecedented call for change two years ago. The fact is, this president’s priorities — creating millions of new jobs, reforming our broken healthcare system, and holding accountable the parties that crashed our economy in the first place — are our priorities.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka also praised
Obama’s speech: “I came away saying he finally gets it. He understands. He knows that we need jobs and he’s willing to fight for it. He knows that we need health care and he’s willing to fight for it.”
The once critical idea of workers achieving unionization via card check appears off the political radar screen, with even the fate of lesser reforms unclear.
Scott Brown’s election is said to have killed chances for meaningful climate change legislation, but there never were 60 Senate Democrats supporting the House-passed bill. One strategy for making progress on climate change was on display last week when Obama traveled to Florida to announce allocation of $1.25 billion for a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando.
Nationally, Obama’s stimulus package awards $8.5 billion for high speed rail. This is a great step forward for the United States, but considering the total cost of even the Tampa-Orlando stretch is $3.5 billion, much more money is needed.
As a diarist on Daily Kos put it
, “Why only $8.5 billion for high speed rail? Why not $85 billion in high speed rail, especially when compared to the Pentagon's budget or what nations like China are investing?”
Obama could circumvent the 60 vote climate change obstacle by funneling billions into the budget for high speed rail and other green jobs programs. But the President has instead committed to a three-year spending freeze that excludes the bloated Pentagon budget.
The aforementioned three-year spending freeze would prevent Democrats from using the budget process to reward their base, as Republican Presidents customarily do. And it would mean not redirecting the Bush Administration's massive military spending toward a massive public and cultural works program that would visibly demonstrate Democrats commitment to jobs. While many blame Obama's inaction on the Senate filibuster threat, passing a progressive budget only requires 50 votes, with Biden the tiebreaker.
Focus on Corporate Donations
While Democrats’ have not delivered on their 2008 campaign agenda -- no fault of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats, whose efforts have been frustrated by the White House and Senate -- the Party now seeks to capitalize on public anger at corporations for the 2010 elections.
That’s why Obama attacked the Supreme Court’s corporate campaign finance ruling, and the President is increasingly going after Wall Street. Republicans are vulnerable on both issues, and Democratic Party strategists see a great opportunity to regain the populist mantle against the GOP’s corporate and Wall-Street backed candidates.
This tactic may excite political insiders, but most people want the politicians they elect to accomplish something. And the notion that each election just sets Democrats up to win the next election — not having fulfilled any of the Party’s goals with huge House and Senate majorities — is the most cynical strategy of all.
Randy Shaw is also author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.