The public doesn't understand specific policies
but it does understand stories that link them together. The stories give
the policies context and meaning, and thereby show where policymakers
are taking a nation (and, by implication, where the opposition would
Republicans lack specific policies but they have a story. Obama and
the Democrats have lots of specific policies but don't have a story.
That spells even more trouble for Democrats.
The Commerce Department reported today (Friday) that the economy grew
only 1.6 percent in the second quarter, which is a fancy way of saying
what everyone on Main Street already knows. The economy has stalled.
Unemployment is still in the stratosphere and shows no sign of
improving. The housing market is worsening.
Why? What to do? The Republican story is simple. It's the fault of
government. They say Obama's policies have bankrupted the nation and
made businesses too uncertain to create jobs. The answer is less
government. Cut taxes and spending, privatize, and deregulate.
It's not a new story but it's capturing the public's mind because the Democrats offer no story to counter it with.
Obama and the Democrats respond by defending their specific policies.
The stimulus worked, they say, as did the bailout of Wall Street,
because the economy is better today than it would be without them. If
anything, we need more stimulus. And healthcare reform will protect tens
A large and growing segment of the public believes none of this. The
public doesn't think in terms of specific policies. All it knows is the
economy has stalled and there's only one story that explains why and
points the way forward and that's the Republican's.
What should the Democratic story be? How can they connect the dots?
Here's a clue. In times of economic stress, Americans lose faith in
the nation's large institutions. They blame either government or its
counterpart in the private sector big business and Wall Street.
Twenty years ago, 42 percent of Americans said they trusted
government to do what was right just about always or most of the time.
Now, only 25 percent do. Twenty years ago 26 percent they had a great
deal or quite a lot of confidence in big business; now, only 16 percent
do. And almost no one trusts Wall Street. The drop in trust toward all
major institutions has been most precipitous since the start of 2008.
The underlying political debate in America is which of these is most
responsible for the mess we're in, and which can be most trusted to get
us out of it big business and Wall Street, or government.
It wouldn't be hard for Democrats to make the case that big business
and Wall Street blew it. The Street's wild speculation took the economy
off the cliff, caused the stock market to crash (and millions of 401(k)s
along with it), and created a housing bubble whose burst has hurt
Big business has used the Great Recession as an opportunity to slash
payrolls and cut wages and is now sitting on a $1.8 trillion mountain of
cash it refuses to use to create new jobs. Instead, it's using the cash
to build more factories abroad, buy back its own shares of stock,
invest in more labor-replacing technologies at home, and do mergers that
will lead to even fewer jobs.
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Meanwhile, a parade of "public-be-damned" actions have threatened
small investors (Goldman Sachs's double dealing), individuals trying to
buy health insurance (WellPoint's double-digit premium increases),
worker safety (the Massey mine disaster), the environment (BP), and even
our food (Jack DeCoster's commercial egg operations).
And a gusher of corporate and Wall Street money has flooded
Washington, exemplified by Big Pharma and the health-insurance lobby
fighting heatlhcare reform, and Wall Street's minions fighting off
stricter financial reform.
If Obama and the Democrats would connect these dots they'd have a
story that would make Americans' hair stand on end. We're in this mess
because of big business and Wall Street. Government is needed to get us
out of it.