On the surface, it seems as if progressives should applaud the actions of President Obama in the wake of his devastating repudiation by 36.3% of the electorate. Instead of hiding in his man cave for the next two years, he has set or tried to set national policy in three important areas.
By coming out in favor of net neutrality, announcing a climate change accord with China and broadly overhauling the immigration enforcement system, Obama has in two weeks advanced the progressive agenda as much as he did over the past four years (or since the passage of the Affordable Care Act). He has taken a lot of flak from Republicans on net neutrality and global warming, but it looks as if the GOP is going to hold its fire on immigration, fearing a backlash from Latino voters.
Progressives could easily quibble about each of these presidential initiatives: He doesn’t go far enough when it comes to immigration and global warming (although maybe he went as far as he could and stay within the prerogatives of the executive branch of government). And although he is explicitly supporting net neutrality, he did appoint the current head of the Federal Communications Commission, Thomas Wheeler, who wants to end net neutrality and allow Internet service providers to charge different prices for different levels of upload and download speed, in a sense cordoning off the Internet into “first class” and “third class” sections.
My complaint with the President runs deeper, and I pose it as a question: If Obama had made these forceful executive actions before the election, would it have energized his constituencies and led to a larger turnout of Democratic supporters, thus enabling the Democrats to keep the Senate and make inroads into the GOP’s house majority?
We’ll never know, but a lot of circumstantial evidence supports the contention that the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party made very poor strategic decisions regarding the 2014 election cycle. Exhibit One is the fact that progressive initiatives passed all over the country. Exhibit Two is the post-election consensus that the vote, and lack of voting, was anti-Obama as much as pro the positions that Republicans favor.
All we saw and heard of Obama’s performance in the mass media in the weeks before the election was negative: the ostensibly botched responses to the threat of Ebola and ISIS. The media over-exaggerated both of these threats and tended to cover the Obama Administration response to both in largely negative and unfair terms.
But what else did they have to write about? Certainly announcing his support of net neutrality one week, a new accord on global warming the next, and a new more humane immigration enforcement policy the week after that would have filled the newspapers with articles about Obama acting boldly—and Republicans dumping on him in areas where surveys suggest the public holds the President’s views. At the very least, moving on these issues before the election would have crowded out some of the bad news, since the media has only so much time and space to fill. More importantly, it might have also given many of the people who stayed home from the polls a reason to vote.
We’ll never know if the untaken road would have led to victory, but we do know that the Democratic strategy to have the President hunker down and have candidates distance themselves from the President did not work. Instead of appealing to its base, Democrats chased voters who were likely going to vote Republican no matter what. It’s a strategy that has never worked in the past, and it didn’t work in 2014.