Three months before the mid-term elections, Americans are angry. As a result, it's likely that Democrats will lose control of either the House or Senate. While the negative political trends can be attributed to the stagnant economy or ruthless Republican negativism, the primary culprit is the White House: Barack Obama has failed to communicate the accomplishments of his Administration.
While some of the political anger is unavoidable - the economy has structural problems because of the excesses of the Bush Administration - much of it could have been avoided if the Obama White House had done a better job communicating the positive steps they have taken to protect working Americans.
A prime example is the economic stimulus package. Enacted in February of 2009, the $787 Billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act received no Republican votes in the House and only 3 in the Senate (Collins, Snowe, and Specter). Out of the gates, the GOP condemned it - they favored tax cuts for the wealthy, supporting the discredited "rising tide lifts all boats" economic policies that have (mis)guided Republican Presidents since Reagan. For eighteen months, Republicans have dogmatically attacked the stimulus claiming either that it hasn't worked - they seize on high unemployment as evidence - or that the funds have been misallocated -GOP Senators Coburn and McCain recently released a flawed report supposedly specifying waste.
The truth is the stimulus package has been a huge success. On July 27th,economists Alan Blinder and Mark Zandi reported the government's intervention "helped avert a second Depression." (Blinder is a Princeton professor and former Fed vice chairman; Zandi is chief economist at Moody's and former McCain adviser.) They stated that without the Obama stimulus package and related policies US "GDP in 2010 would be about 6 1/2% lower, payroll employment would be less by some 8 1/2 million jobs, and the nation would now be experiencing deflation."
Nonetheless, public perception of the stimulus package is negative. According to a Pew Research poll Americans believe the stimulus did NOT help "keep unemployment from getting even worse" or help "state and local governments avoid layoffs and budget cuts," even though there is ample evidence to the contrary. 66 percent of poll respondents felt the primary impact of the stimulus package was to increase the budget deficit.
2008's Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) has faired even worse in terms of public opinion. Widely decried as a half-witted "bailout" program that benefited behemoth banks and financial institutions at the expense of working folks, having voted for TARP has become a congressional badge of dishonor. Public opinion quickly turned against TARP.
Once again, the reality is the TARP program worked. According to economists Blinder and Zandi, "the real GDP is almost $800 billion (6 percent) higher because of [TARP-related] policies, and the unemployment rate is almost 3 percentage points lower." Early in June, to almost no political acknowledgement, the Treasury Department announced that the TARP loans had been repaid.
Now the Obama Administration is locked into a deadly economic debate with Republicans. The White House wisely advocates policies that create jobs, even if this means temporarily increasing the Federal deficit and (gasp) increasing taxes for millionaires. Republicans evidently don't care about real job creation as they emphasize both deficit reduction and continuing the Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires - the fact that these are contradictory objectives makes no difference to GOP politicians (consistency has never been their strong suit).
As might be expected, given the recent swings of labile public opinion, Americans are confused. Nonetheless, in the most recent CNN poll Americans favored "stimulating the economy" over "reducing the deficit" by a 57 to 42 percent margin and "create more jobs" over "reduce the deficit" by a whopping 74 to 25 percent margin. Writing for the Center For American Progress, veteran analyst Ruy Teixeira argues that the political tide is turning against the GOP. He cites the most recent Kaiser Health tracking poll the shows public approval of Obama's healthcare reform has increased to 50 percent versus 35 percent disapproval. Teixeira further notes a Pew Research poll indicating that 58 percent of respondents favor repeal of some or all of the Bush-era tax cuts.
While Barack Obama's presidential approval ratings have fallen - although he's retained his personal popularity - they're dwarfed by negative congressional ratings. Voters are angry but they're also confused about the battle over economic policy. There's still time for Democrats to turn the tide.
What's required is a return of Barack Obama the master communicator, resurrection of the guy who touched so many voters during the 2008 Presidential campaign. That Obama needs to defend his economic policy decisions, which for the most part have been correct. That Obama needs to convince the electorate America needs a Democratically controlled Congress; that it's unthinkable for us to return to disastrous Bush-era economic policies.
Talk to us, Barack. Bring back the hope.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.