It does not take a pollster, partisan or psychic to see a harbinger of things to come in Massachusetts voters’ choice of a Republican to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. If Barack Obama’s next three years in the White House are anything like his first, he will surely be a one-term president.
And for black America, that’s the good news.
Because if history is any guide, the truly awful news is that the smart money is on Sarah Palin to replace Obama in the White House.
Foreshadowing a Palin presidency is a perfect, gathering storm of economics, politics and tribalism, which is not to suggest that Obama is an innocent bystander in his reversal of fortune. It is certainly true that he inherited a capsized economy. But his administration has done little to right the ship. And no president can survive double-digit unemployment and 30,000 foreclosures a month for long.
“But what about Ronald Reagan,” the skeptics are no doubt asking now, “who was saddled with a deep recession in his first term, yet bounced back to win reelection in a landslide?” The difference is epic: Reagan’s poor-performing economy was stalled; Obama’s is broken, and despite all the sanguine media talk of a recovery, the crisis shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
Even before the recession hit, there were more maids, cashiers and waitresses in the United States than factory workers, and, when inflation is accounted for, workers have not had a raise in almost 40 years. The trillions of taxpayer dollars showered on Wall Street has produced record profits and fat bonuses, but has done nothing to loosen clogged credit lines. Lending in October of last year was down nearly 15 percent from the previous year—and the White House refuses to launch a New Deal-like jobs program, or provide any substantive relief to borrowers who are in over their head on mortgages, student loans or credit cards.
According to a recent Bloomberg News poll, only 8 percent of consumers say they plan to spend more in 2010, and with the circulation of cash slowing to a snail’s pace, you don’t need Paul Krugman to answer this question: If nobody’s lending, and nobody’s spending, how does your economy grow?
In fact, the economic crisis that is most comparable to the current situation is not the Great Depression, or the 1981 slowdown, but Japan’s decade-long recession that began with the bust of its real-estate bubble in the early ‘90s.
A protracted stagnation will likely produce competing responses from voters in 2012, both of them bad for Obama. Polls show that African Americans continue to overwhelmingly support the president even though the unemployment rate for blacks is nearly twice the national average. That won’t change much, if at all, in the next three years. But will the laid–off African-American workers, who have exhausted their jobless benefits, turn out to vote in Gary, Ind., Detroit, Cleveland, Philly and Tampa with the same enthusiasm, and in the same numbers, as they did in 2008? Black New Yorkers certainly didn’t turn out last year for Bill Thompson, the African-American Democratic mayoral nominee, who lost narrowly to Michael Bloomberg, the Republican incumbent. Voter turnout was the city’s lowest in almost a century.
Conversely, while the economic climate is likely to leave the country’s most reliably liberal voting bloc demoralized and disengaged from an electoral process, this same dispossession has historically energized white, conservatives—particularly when cast in a racial hue. Consider the post-Reconstruction era, or the post-civil rights era, or even South Africa’s Afrikaners who responded to a fiscal crisis by electing the National Party which introduced apartheid in 1948. Today, you can see a populist, scattershot backlash, emerging in the form of the Republican-led “tea-bag” protests, South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson’s heckling of Obama and the rock-star sized crowds generated by Palin’s book tour.
In a Dec. 20 interview with NBC’s Meet The Press, Markos Moulitsas, founder of the liberal blog, the Daily Kos, said that his own polling showed that 86 percent of Republican voters plan on casting ballots in the 2010 midterm elections, compared to 56 percent of Democrats, and 32 percent of African Americans.
On the same show, NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell said: “There’s an anger out there, and I have not seen it since my very first campaign which was George Wallace. There is an angry subtext because of economic dislocation.”
Like the defiant, segregationist Alabama governor, Palin, the former Alaska governor, speaks the language of the white Southern and suburban voters who fear that the American way of life is under attack from an out-of-touch, Godless, effete and multiracial big-city crowd. With her folksy charisma and parochial values, Palin is the latest in a long line of demagogues —from post-Reconstruction governors in the Deep South to Father Coughlin in the ‘30s, from Reagan to Lou Dobbs—who’ve emerged to redeem, or reclaim, the land from Northern carpetbaggers and uppity Negroes.
According to a December Gallup poll, 44 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Palin, an increase of 4 percentage points from October, and narrowing the gap with Obama, whose favorability rating dropped 20 percentage points since his inauguration, to 49 percent.
As the Massachusetts election demonstrates, the problem is not, as much of the media alleges, that Obama and the Democrats have overreached. They haven’t gone far enough. Scott Brown, the Republican candidate in last week’s Massachusetts election, tellingly, made health care “reform” the focus of his triumphant campaign, traveling the state in an old, GM pickup truck, arguing, quite accurately, that the Senate health care plan would cost Americans more money, not less. According to one exit poll, Obama voters who opted for the Republican candidate Scott Brown in Tuesday’s election, said, by a margin of 3-to-2, that the Senate health care proposal “doesn’t go far enough.” Eight of 10 voters in the state continue to want a public option.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People (WW Norton) and the co-author of A Day Late and A Dollar Short: High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Obama’s “PostRacial America” (John Wiley and Sons).