Obama Needs to Articulate a Clear Economic Policy

It’s obvious that the November election will turn on the economy, and with unemployment hovering near 10 percent, the party in power is looking at significant losses in the House and Senate. And yet, who can sum up President Obama’s economic policy in words that voters can take to the polls? The absence of a compelling economic policy articulated by the president in bumper-sticker language will doom Democrats this fall. It’s a disheartening echo of the loss that John Kerry experienced in Ohio in 2004, a state that had suffered economically under President’s Bush’s stewardship and that was culturally more aligned with the Democrats than the Republicans, and yet Kerry lost Ohio and with it the presidency.

The reason: no one knew or could explain Kerry’s economic plan for the country. Like Clinton before him and Obama after him, Kerry favored investments in energy and education and a tax policy that bolsters the middle class, not the rich. But packaging a grab-bag of initiatives into a winning plan eluded him, just as it is eluding Obama.

Obama likes big-picture solutions, but elections demand ideas that offer the voters more immediacy, and more bang for the buck. The straightforward Cash for Clunkers and the recently lapsed real-estate rebate are the highlights of his economic program, while the stimulus bill is tarred (unfairly) as wasted money and the administration’s mortgage-rescue program founders in a sea of red tape.

Former Bush adviser Karen Hughes, speaking at an event this week at George Washington University, said the BP oil spill is an analogy for what is happening in politics: a growing anxiety turned into anger that is spilling over in ways that political leaders can’t channel or control. Mark Penn, a former Clinton pollster, didn’t dispute the analogy, but argued that the election’s outcome hinges on whether the Democrats can find relief wells. Penn said Obama has to persuade voters that he deserves more time for his policies to work. And Democrats have got to frame the election contest as a choice between Obama’s policies and those of the failed Bush era, as opposed to a referendum on the president. Obama can win against the Republicans; he can’t win if he’s running against himself, and the unrealistic expectations he raised.

The stakes are nothing less than the rest of his presidency. If the Republicans regain control of the House—which Hughes said is likely, citing 35 competitive races where the Republican is 9 points ahead of the Democrat, and another 35 where the Republican has a 1- or 2-point edge—and the GOP shaves five seats off the Democratic majority in the Senate, the outlook for Obama’s agenda would be poor to none.

If the House falls to the GOP, Penn predicted “subpoena city,” with the Republicans revving up their investigative machinery to hound Democrats and force gridlock for two years until the next presidential election. The era of bipartisan compromise that followed the ’94 GOP takeover is unlikely to repeat itself, said Penn, who advised President Clinton on working with Republicans to pass welfare reform and a balanced budget. Partisan intensity then was more about Clinton personally than his policies. Republican leaders recognized they would not benefit from years of gridlock, and they made deals to get what they wanted legislatively. This time around, the GOP is so vested in Obama’s failure that the prospect of productive compromise looks like a pipe dream.

However, should the GOP fall short of the 39-seat pickup needed to take back the majority in the House, that would be seen as a victory for Obama, and he could credibly claim that the voters have given him more time to make good on his promise of change.

Given these competing scenarios—one that shuts down the Democratic agenda, the other a two-year lease on Obama’s domestic policies—environmental groups are pushing the White House to act more aggressively to get a comprehensive energy bill in the limited legislative calendar that is left. Desperation focuses the mind, and seeing the window close, even as the BP spill continues to remind voters of the folly of our addiction to oil, pains issue advocates who have staked so much on Obama’s leadership.

It is unknowable at this point how much political capital Obama is willing to spend on energy legislation—or immigration reform, for that matter, which is another big issue rumbling around the White House. Obama talks a good game, but he hasn’t broken a sweat on either of these big-ticket items, and time is running out. Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, says job creation is stalled in part because of uncertainty about new rules Congress may impose: “If you call CEOs, they’re all sitting with capital on the sidelines because Congress won’t get off its ass.” He was talking about the energy sector, but it’s true across the board, with everyone waiting for Obama. Like waiting for Godot, as a political strategy, it belongs in the theater of the absurd.

Eleanor Clift is also the author of  Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.