Obama's Wall Street-friendly approach may be netting him a lot of banker contributions again this year, but a recent poll shows that independents in crucial swing states believe the President has mishandled the mortgage crisis and isn't holding Wall Street bankers "accountable" for their role in the housing crisis.
And when it comes to taxing the wealthy, the President has opted for the milquetoast Buffett rule (Is that the most Warren Buffett should be asked to chip in -- the same rate as his secretary?) rather than making the case for truly progressive taxation. On all of these key issues, the President's corporation-placating agenda has hamstrung his ability to connect with key voters the way he did in 2008.
Sure, the President's popular. But there's a difference between approval and votes. The difference is turnout.
There are two possible ways to get these voters to the polling booth: One is to convince them that the Obama Presidency has been a great liberal success. That's the approach taken by my friend Bill, undoubtedly because that's what he believes. Will that bring young voters, the unemployed, underwater homeowners, and other disenchanted citizens to the polls? That means convincing them that what looks like defeat -- burdensome debt, foreclosed homes, prolonged joblessness -- is really victory.
Good luck with that.
The other approach, which I believe is both more accurate and more effective, is to explain two very important things to them: that the GOP will cause enormous harm if it gains more political power, and that neither a President nor a party will fight for what's right -- or even what's popular -- without relentless pressure from independent and mobilized activists.
It didn't have to be this way. Had the President made different decisions, these voters could have been energized over the last three and a half years by hearing clear and forceful arguments in their favor. He could have used his bully pulpit to explain the extent of Wall Street's crimes and then used his Justice Department to investigate them. By viewing "corporate power as a force to be bargained with," Obama chose instead to sacrifice the principle of "one law for all." That alienated voters while leaving our economy at risk.
But what's done is done. That means there are two ways to get out the progressive vote in November: either to pretend that the Obama Presidency has been a victory for progressive values, or to build a movement that will fight for deeper change.
The health-care bill which Bill touts as a liberal triumph is a perfect case in point. I don't envy Democratic leaders who must defend it against charges that it contains tax increases -- because it does. Some of those taxes, like the surcharge on high earners, would actually be quite popular if the President chose to explain it clearly. Others are un-progressive, unjust, and unwise -- and directly contradict the President's campaign promises.
The Right's "big lie" of the week is its claim that the health bill contains "the largest tax increase in history." It's not even close, and its biggest increase is for those who earn more than $200,000 per year. But middle-class families will take a hit when the law raises the limit for deductible medical expenses to 10 percent of adjusted earnings, up from its current 7.5 percent. Rule changes for health pending accounts will also increase the tax burden for some middle class families.
And they weren't all the result of compromises with corporate power, either. A case in point is the excise tax on higher-cost health plans, which is based on ivory-tower economics and will punish people economically for belonging to health plans whose demographic cost drivers they can't control. he President aggressively fought for the unpopular excise tax -- one of the few provisions he personally fought to include in the bill -- despite campaigning against it in 2008.
Public Option, Private Deals
Then there's the individual mandate, which will affect very few Americans but will nevertheless impose a financial penalty on middle-class and lower-income people. The President asked for trouble when he jettisoned the public option early on in secret negotiations with for-profit health providers.
The public option (a Medicare buy-in for people under 65) was popular across the political spectrum -- 51 percent of Republicans supported it, according to polling -- and it provided a ready answer for Americans (liberal and otherwise) who were outraged at the idea of being forced to buy a private insurance product that offers inadequate coverage and lousy services at exorbitant prices.