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The Enthusiasm Gap

Sunday, 28 February 2010 18:40
Portrait, Robert Reich, 08/16/09. (photo: Perian Flaherty)

Portrait, Robert Reich, 08/16/09. (photo: Perian Flaherty)

had dinner the other night with a Democratic pollster who told me Dems are heading toward next fall's mid-term elections with a serious enthusiasm gap: The Republican base is fired up. The Dem base is packing up.

The Dem base is lethargic because congressional Democrats continue to compromise on everything the Dem base cares about. For a year now it's been nothing but compromises, watered-down ideas, weakened provisions, wider loopholes, softened regulations. Health care went from what the Dem base wanted - single payer - to a public option, to no public option, to a bunch of ideas that the President tried to explain last week, and it now hangs by a string as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid try to round up conservative Dems and a 51-vote reconciliation package in the Senate. The jobs bill went from what the base wanted - a second stimulus - to $165 billion of extended unemployment benefits and aid to states and locales, then to $15 billion of tax breaks for businesses that make new hires. Financial regulation went from tough new capital requirements, sharp constraints on derivate trading, a consumer protection agency, and a resurrection of the Glass-Steagall Act - all popular with the Dem base - to some limits on derivatives and a consumer-protection agency inside the Treasury Department and a rearrangement of oversight boxes, and it's now looking like even less. The environment went from the base's desire for a carbon tax to a cap-and-trade carbon auction then to a cap-and-trade with all sorts of exemptions and offsets for the biggest polluters, and now Senate Dems are talking about trying to do it industry-by-industry.

These waffles and wiggle rooms have drained the Democratic base of all passion. "Why should I care?" are words I hear over and over again from stalwart Democrats who worked their hearts out in the last election.

The Republican base, meanwhile, is on a rampage. It's more and more energized by its mad-as-hell populists. Tea partiers, libertarians, Birchers, birthers, and Dick Armey astro-turfers are channeling the economic anxieties of millions of Americans against "big government."

Technically, the Dems have the majority in Congress and could still make major reforms. But conservative, "blue-dog" Dems won't go along. They say the public has grown wary of government. But they must know the public hasn't grown even more wary of big business and Wall Street, on which effective government is the only constraint.

Anyone with an ounce of sanity understands government is the only effective countervailing force against the forces that got us into this mess: Against Goldman Sachs and the rest of the big banks that plunged the economy into crisis, got our bailout money, and are now back at their old games, dispensing huge bonuses to themselves. Against WellPoint and the rest of the giant health insurers who are at this moment robbing us of the care we need by raising their rates by double digits. Against giant corporations that are showing big profits by continuing to lay off millions of Americans and cutting the wages of millions of more, by shifting jobs abroad and substituting software. Against big oil and big utilities that are raising prices and rates, and continue to ravage the atmosphere.

If there was ever a time to connect the dots and make the case for government as the singular means of protecting the public from these forces it is now. Yet the White House and the congressional Dem's ongoing refusal to blame big business and Wall Street has created the biggest irony in modern political history. A growing portion of the public, fed by the right, blames our problems on "big government."

Much of the reason for the Democrats' astonishing reluctance to place blame where it belongs rests with big business's and Wall Street's generous flows of campaign donations to Dems, coupled with their implicit promise of high-paying jobs once Democratic officials retire from government. This is the rot at the center of the system. And unless or until it's remedied, it will be difficult for the President to achieve any "change you can believe in."

To his credit, Obama himself has not scaled back his health-care ambitions all that much, and he appears, intermittently, to want to push conservative blue-dog Dems to join him on a bigger jobs bill, tougher financial reform, and a more effective approach to global warming. (His overtures to Republicans seem ever more transparently designed to give blue-dog Dems cover to vote with him.)

But our President is not comfortable wielding blame. He will not give the public the larger narrative of private-sector greed, its nefarious effect on the American public at this dangerous juncture, and the private sector's corruption of the democratic process. He has so far eschewed any major plan to get corporate and Wall Street money out of politics. He can be indignant - as when he lashed out at the "fat cats" on Wall Street - but his indignance is fleeting, and it is no match for the faux indignance of the right that blames government for all that ails us.

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Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written twelve books, including "The Work of Nations," "Locked in the Cabinet," and his most recent book, "Supercapitalism." His "Marketplace" commentaries can be found on and iTunes. your social media marketing partner


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+4 # Guest 2010-02-28 23:48
"...the report of my death was an exaggeration... " Never count them out. The wacko fringe only has an advantage with their base and big money. The voters are not so easily fooled.
+1 # Guest 2010-03-01 16:46
Yes we are. Every general populace that had a say has been manipulated. Ibsen in "An Enemy of the People" addressed the issue 120 years ago. We get riled up and forget our own best interest. The AM radio, Fox News mouth pieces have tapped into that fact and have made a career out of it. That’s the real world, but as Karl Rove said, they make their reality they don't live in it.
+2 # Guest 2010-02-28 23:49
"...the reports of my death is an exaggeration... " Don't count the Democrats out. The GOP appeals to their fringe base and big business money. The voter on the other hand is not fooled.
+1 # leroy-rogers 2010-03-01 11:33
In counter balance to my reply (3 parter pending review) the Dems just might be getting the message that the voters might not be as the media, pundits, and expecially the GOP portray. On the other hand we do need to keep the pressure on the Dems and the media to straighten up and plug on.
+7 # Guest 2010-02-28 23:52
While I have not considered myself a Liberal since the late 60's I nonetheless ascribe to any number of progressive policies especially in the social and fiscal areas such as single payer and financial re-regulation a la Glass-Steagall and derivatives. I find Obama's performance to date or essentially lack thereof to be especially disheartening. Obama should take a page from Karl Rove who no matter what the question fed his base. There comes a time when you have ignore the base on some things but that should come much later. He had a mandate for change and his dillydallying has emboldened the Blue Dogs who might have been with him if they could but perceive Obama's program as pushing full steam ahead. The uncertainty has allowed the right wing to plant doubts about their own reelection chances and hence increased their opposition to the phony argument of the deficit. Yes, the deficit is real but a full employment economy will increase tax revenue faster than anything else.
-2 # Guest 2010-03-01 11:27
Mr Rosenwald:
Do you really still believe that Obama's campaign promises had anything to do w/ his actual program?
I was a fervent supporter.
He lied.
+1 # leroy-rogers 2010-03-01 11:41
I think it was George Lakoff who said: "Republicans govern to run, and Democrats run to govern." While your point on the deficit is right on, the Karl Rove take flies in the face of progress, and I take issue with the dillydallying, unless you are a closet Righty. He (and congress) have taken on much more than the Right would like, in case you can't tell(respectful ly),(& and I am not mocking the right), but there was a lot to do when Obama and congress came to the rescue, and there is a lot more to do.
+5 # Guest 2010-02-28 23:59
SPOT ON! as usual, Robert.

t's sickening to watch the spineless Dems tremble helplessly before the outrage ginned up by the reich-wing (sorry, no offense intended). They seem incapable, as you point out about Obama, of re-framing the narrative and stuck with the one the Re THUG LIE CONS have hung around their necks.

It's all the more sickening that the problems we're dealing with were created by their "free-enterpris e" model. As Paul Krugman so accurately described, they've once again spent us into bankruptcy and thus made effective government programs impossible. We have a gold-plated military on which we spend more than the rest of world combined spends on military but cant' provide health insurance - or even cover the current budget obligations. In the meantime, they have no solutions other than to let the fat cats continue to gorge at the public trough. The rich get richer, etc. etc. etc. . .

Thanks for your great service. Keep it up.
+3 # Guest 2010-03-01 00:23
I couldn't agree more- only big governement can act as an effective bulwark against the excesses of supercapitalism - which, thus far, have lulled the right and liberals into a slumber of sorts. It is no longer a question of liberals vs the right, but both and the economic robber barons against the people. The alliance is complete and has been in the making for decades. The ideological whitewashing, the manipulation of the people, including the media hype orchestrating the complete surrender of even the most reasonable- including the elaboration of the security apparatus and the war machinery- are securely in place. Countervailing elements disparately try to find space amidst this madness- ironically, the forces of reason and progress are unwittingly contributing to the mess. In addition, as long as it is business as usual, why should we be surprised when we end up with the same results? Poor turncoat Dems and their ilk!
+7 # Guest 2010-03-01 00:53
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
+5 # Guest 2010-03-01 01:20
Yes, Reich's correct, at least for me. It has been straight downhill since the 50-state strategy was abandoned/cance led, the full spectrum of persons were not allowed at the healthcare discussion table, homeowners were not offered effective mortgage renegotiation, jobs were not created to protect the unemployed, etc., etc.
+1 # Guest 2010-03-01 01:29
Well said and so true.
+5 # Guest 2010-03-01 03:08
Dear Prof. Reich:
You are right on the dot, on what I and others like me feel. The question is how does it get transferred to the 58 senators that still will listen? I don't consider Joe Liberman a fellow traveler, and he should be dumped from his committee leadership to give an warning to the Blue Dogs to shape up or ready to be shipped out. If it is done in next 4 weeks and public option is passed - a legend like Medicare will be made and Democrats will win the mid term, if they show the spine.
+2 # Guest 2010-03-01 07:07
I'd say Mr Reich pretty much covered it. So are there any alternatives for Progressives other than voting for the Green Party? Sure is hard to get enthused about these guys!
+1 # leroy-rogers 2010-03-01 11:51
It really depends on your states electoral process and political machinery in the form of primary systems party registration and voting mechanisms. Not to mention who the incumbent is. Then there are the voters and their general tendencies and histories, not to mention media. If there is a partisan primary and partisan voters, the political calculus is to either push the progressive in or the moderate out at the risk of radicalizing the rest. If there is a top-two-move on, it might be more fun, but it gets more complicated and even the tea-partiers might be of assistance or mangling of the political calculus.
+3 # Guest 2010-03-01 07:10
The only credible salvation I see out there is offered by a Republican, and his name is Ron Paul. As far as I can see, he is the only major figure who *always* adheres to the rule of law. The rot at the core of our apple is the failure of almost all lawmakers and government executives to discharge their responsibilitie s as described in their solemn oaths of office. Ron Paul's behavior stands in stark contrast, and, naturally, this offends everyone. The contrast highlights the widespread corruption in which we are *all* involved to at least some degree. When we vote our pocketbooks instead of our republic, and especially when we don't vote at all, we are complicit. Our real enemy is ourselves. We have bought into quick fixes that have sold the roof over our heads, figuratively as well as literally, and now it's raining a little bit, and we're getting a little bit wet. When a real storm comes, as it will, things will get very uncomfortable, and our politics will finally change.
+2 # leroy-rogers 2010-03-01 11:58
Great point! Ron Paul is a rare breed, and not to pun a rare Republican that deserves respect, looking at and confronting. As that implies I do not agree with his Libertarian take, it(& he) seems at least more honest if not wrong. BTW: it is already trickling down quite a bit. While I believe the overall premise of Libertarianism is flawed, it is hard to tell by its followers, and this is to say that there are good points and thinks taken too far or not far enough. (yes, thinks)
+4 # Guest 2010-03-01 07:11
Professor Reich as usual has hit the nail on the head. The Democratic Party is a party of Wall Street wannabes and lobbyist lackeys. Once known as the party of the people, the Democratic leadership caved in to big money and big corporations. Yes, there are a few good ones out there, but in my opinion the closets Senator to being a true Democrat is Bernie Sanders of VT and he's an independent. Says a lot about this party of hacks. Where is the voice of the party of the people? The deal makers are not working for us. Time for two things necessary to get this government back to the people and to sanity: 1) a constitutional amendment making all campaigns publicly financed and 2) grassroots Democrats start running for party positions and kick the DLC Democrats and Blue Dogs out. Let them go to the Republican Party; these Dems would me the moderates the Republicans need. The people need a party leadership that fights for them and not for themselves.
+1 # leroy-rogers 2010-03-01 12:07
Right on! I believe I hit a few of these nails already. All politics is local! But it has a bubble up effect. All economics is local, except that it is not just local. Meaning our choices depend on who is running, and how the electoral process works. Unfortunately, that is also why it is not. (Not get into the chicken or the egg-sight-able process.)
0 # Guest 2010-03-02 00:46
I very much agree with this comment. Have you ever read Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine"? I believe that both parties (with exceptions like Bernie, Dennis, and Grayson)essenti ally have a drama going that always end up with the Corps. winning so they can keep their money flow going. Their differences are just for public perception for election considerations. Most all of them can't or won't get out of the marriage! Without the ongoing drama, they'd all become obsolete for we definitely don't need to keep thinking inside this box! In fact, true cooperation would solve it all in a minute were motives pure and inclusive.
+3 # Guest 2010-03-01 07:21
Thank-you, thank-you! Now, how do we clone more Robert Reiches and wake up this electorate AND our President. This is not what we voted for.

Obama won the election by saying what the majority wanted to hear and then lost it completely by becoming bi-partisan to a fault! If I were a cartoonist, I would draw a cartoon showing the electorate operating on Obama's weak spine!

What can we do?

Annie Estlund
+1 # Guest 2010-03-01 07:27
Building on your sentiments, sir, I just read of the IMF's grab for more power and control. National governments everywhere are more and more a tool of the international corporatocracy that schemes to supplant civil government for control over the worlds resources. So the notion that government is a threat to our rights and freedoms is both true and false. It is true to the extent that we allow corporate influence to dictate what government does (health care and financial reform being a vivid examples). It is false in the sense that national civil government is the only organizing force big enough to defend our families from a corporate takeover. Even the extreme polarization that seems to divide us is an artifact of corporate (media manipulated) aggression against us. The only thing we have to fear is our own failure to act in the struggle to restore... A GOVERNMENT OF AND BY THE PEOPLE.
+1 # leroy-rogers 2010-03-01 12:15
Easier said than done! That hits both your's and Obama's nail. Meaning in relation to my other replies, in particular the trickle down, the bubble up, and more or less of what needs to be done and how. Now, we have not even touched human rights and international disputes, but these do play into the economic bubble that impacts all, and in which the administration has been working to move forward and must not be neglected, overly reacted to or backslid on.
+1 # Guest 2010-03-01 07:28
Bravo! Now what do we do to remind Obama of why we voted for for him? Perhaps an operation on his weak spine? I, for one, am getting "mad as hell" and seeking ways to get our message across to him.

For one thing we need more outrage from the Liberal spokespersons, such as you. The Reps. have that mastered with the likes of Limbaugh, etc. We must copy a page from their playbook or face the fact that we will lose the power we had in the upcoming elections.
+1 # Guest 2010-03-01 07:32
Excellent summary of why I, for one, am frustrated with Democratic "pragmatists." Seems there is a typo or mistake in syntax in the fifth paragraph. Shouldn't it read, "... the public HAS grown..." not "hasn't grown"?
+1 # Guest 2010-03-01 08:17
Democrats are fools if they think that backing away from the Democratic agenda will protect their seats in the next election. Voters who want to support the Republican agenda (I was going to say "Republican ideals" but that is an oxymoron) will vote for Republicans, not Democrats, even Democrats willing to compromise their principles. Many voters will support Democrats who actually get something accomplished. And, as with Medicare, the reforms being proposed by Democrats will gain support once their benefits become clear. Lack of enthusiasm among Democrats will absolutely cook us in the next election, as Scott Brown's win demonstrated in Massachusetts.
+4 # Guest 2010-03-01 08:31
The retreat started in the 1980s when Reagan framed Liberals as the champions of big government which was, in his words, "the problem". The Democrats ran away from the label and lost their soul. No longer willing to defend liberalism the march of corporatism ran us over. Dems became "moderates". The right wing effectively defined 'libs' as hated and despised, unpatriotic and in cases like Limbaugh and Beck, would feel good to kill. So Democrats responded by calling themselves progressives. Now, Beck, Limbaugh and the rest of the Repugs of the right are now calling progressivism the cancer of America. For the love of God and the people fight back. Let's pass health care WITH A PUBLIC OPTION and ram the thing up the Conservative Right Wing butts. Any Dems not on board, then throw them overboard in a primary challenge. No more jellyfish. We want fighters with backbones of steel!
+3 # Guest 2010-03-01 08:50
I am one of the disillusioned Democrat base - so disillusioned, in fact, that I no longer support the Democratic Party. But I shouldn't be surprised; Obama did chose Rahm Emmanual for his Chief of Staff. When Emmanual was head of the DCCC in '06, he didn't support many more liberal candidates -- saying they couldn't get elected so why waste the money. It wasn't until, grass root support should they had a good chance of winning that he (probably reluctantly) threw in some DCCC money. He wouldn't stick his neck out; he wouldn't "go for it". Many good Democratic Congressmen are in Washington today IN SPITE OF the DCCC!
+1 # Guest 2010-03-01 09:25
Kevin Phillips historical writings on the subject of bloated capitols with influence peddling run rampant has been predictive of our nation's decline. I hope there is an opportunity to change course....perha ps its too late.
+1 # Guest 2010-03-01 10:03
“... Tea partiers, libertarians, Birchers, birthers, and Dick Armey astro-turfers are channeling the economic anxieties of millions of Americans against "big government."

Republican or not these people are scary. That is why I do care.

The “passion” of the Democratic base was headed for disappointment from the beginning. The beast was set up to starve. The government had been expanded and the debts increased to the point that loans could dry up.

President Obama cannot wave a magic wand to solve all the problems listed. He made his first error when he tried to give legislative power back to Congress. His second mistake was in waiting too long to realize Congress is notorious for not facing real issues.

So we are left here with a Government that is terribly crippled but it is better than what the “Tea Party” big tent wants for us all. I may not like what the Congress doesn't get done but I wonder about the alternatives.
+3 # Guest 2010-03-01 12:44
Reich hits the nail on the head. My "passion" for hope and change has turned into despair at the lack of progress on the issues that Obama campaigned on. In the guise of bipartisanship, he begins his negotiations from the middle and then moves to the right, instead of beginning from the left and moving to the middle. At this rate, we'll get a whole lot of nothing that will surely, for the first time in 30 years, keep me home on election day. Thanks to the Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to pour money into campaigns, the 2 party system guarantees that we can never elect any true reformers who can enact any meaningful change.
+1 # Guest 2010-03-01 11:02
Who ARE the "Blue Dog" Conservative Democrats who are holding everything HOSTAGE? I want names please. Obviously they are part of the problem, and don't care to be part of the solution.
+1 # leroy-rogers 2010-03-01 11:23
Fair and Balanced and understated:
"Technically, the Dems have the majority in Congress and could still make major reforms. But conservative, 'blue-dog' Dems won't go along. They say the public has grown wary of government. But they must know the public hasn't grown even more wary of big business and Wall Street, on which effective government is the only constraint.

Anyone with an ounce of sanity understands government is the only effective countervailing force against the forces that got us into this mess: Against Goldman Sachs and the rest of the big banks that plunged the economy into crisis, got our bailout money, and are now back at their old games, dispensing huge bonuses to themselves. Against WellPoint and the rest of the giant health insurers who are at this moment robbing us of the care we need by raising their rates by double digits..."
+1 # leroy-rogers 2010-03-01 11:25
Fair and Balanced and understated(con t. Part II) "...Against giant corporations that are showing big profits by continuing to lay off millions of Americans and cutting the wages of millions of more, by shifting jobs abroad and substituting software. Against big oil and big utilities that are raising prices and rates, and continue to ravage the atmosphere."

Anyone who reads this should understand that the Right is off its rocker, if they think the President is a socialist. I am not sure there is a typeo, but the Tea Party types are a little tipsy too if... "the public hasn't grown even more wary of big business and Wall Street, on which effective government is the only constraint." (cont.)
+1 # leroy-rogers 2010-03-01 11:26
Fair and Balanced and understated: (conclusion Part III)

The plain understatement is that Democrats are not out to destroy America or corporations in particular, nor has the "Free Market" ever been free, but is easier to simmer than get fired up, when the heat comes from the ad hominem, ad group'em, ad label'em, add lose'em blame game enthusiasts. Not to blame the author, but change is "hard work" as pointed out in the many areas we have sacrificed our plans and as Senator Lamar Alexander said of the Republican approach, "we don't do comprehensive well."
+1 # Guest 2010-03-01 13:11
Something has happened in the last 10 years to crush the spirit of the Democrats. We have lost any sense of empowerment. We have no real leader. There is no real outrage about the 5 trillion dollar increase in the debt or about fighting two endless wars which can't be won or about the endless lies. People are afraid to join unions or speak out. Our Social Security contributions are being stolen. We are ridiculed and demeaned by the right but we just silently hide in the corner.
keith campbell
+1 # Guest 2010-03-01 13:23
Generally speaking,... I am almost too sick and repulsed - to get more politically involved at the moment..... Everything sickens me. This country - truly is "mentally sick" - governed by our military culture which is fed by Corporations, - and the people ... have absolutely no outlet at all - to even express their anger or their desires. We just sit here like "shooting pigeons" - waiting for them to stomp on us or shoot us.... We have no outlet at all. We can't stop them from doing whatever they want to (Like the super-hwy right through out country, etc. We were never even asked about that). Writing to your representative - truly does no good, and writing to the newspaper - is ridiculous - even if it is printed. So what? Again, - another dead end for those reading it - and agreeing with you, Robert Reich or anyone. Again - no outlet for anything! Where do we go from here?

Not such a good prognosis for the future. Real Revolutions are built from such things....
+2 # Guest 2010-03-01 14:45
There is a way forward. Obama tapped into the discontent but then decided it was more important to court the Washington power structure than rely on the power structure that put him in office. That structure of the people is still there and is hungry for a champion. Obama needs to hear from us and ask him to have the courage to come back to us. If he does, he and the other Dems will realize that the steel they need is here in us. And if they don't, then let us champion our cause ourselves and take the Democratic Party away form the corporate/Washi ngton power structure. A rebellion in the ranks will create a revolution in Washington.
Let's call our champion back to the camp and then take the field one more time.
+1 # Guest 2010-03-01 15:34
i think bob hit's the nail on the head. i'm torn, though, when i think about the dillydallying part. to me, obama comes across as a 'reach across the divide' and figure stuff out guy. the other side may be too intractable to make this effort work, but it IS what the politics of our country need. the policies, though, cannot wait much longer to be addressed. i think obama still has the same goals in his gut, but this place is treacherous!
+1 # Guest 2010-03-01 16:50
Wish someone would take that very conservative but very effective YouTube piece: America Rising - substitute the facts; connect the disconnects without losing the piece's punch and fling it out there virally.
+1 # Guest 2010-03-01 18:25
This article is exactly right in its analysis. The mainstream Democratic Party has been bought and paid for by the very people who have created the mess we are in, and it incapable, therefore, of getting us out of it. This is a political crisis of unprecedented moment -- a complete breakdown of democratic process.

Michael Moore for President!
0 # Guest 2010-03-01 22:17
I completely agree with Mr Uttaro, that a rebellion within the ranks of the Dem. Party is what is going to need to happen in order to produce a revolution in Washington. Robert Reich is so correct in showing that big government is necessary to constrain the surely anti-democratic reality of big business...unle ss of course big business owns the government. Individual progressives may be corruptable but the spirit of the progressive movement is not and it is the one movement that has consistantly, historically, defended the good of the people ahead of the good of corporate America.
Come on people! Contact your local Democratic Party office & get active! Get on a committee! Agitate for progressive change; run for local office; campaign on behalf of other progressives; get out the vote. I don't believe that the status quo in Washington can ever be reformed until the Democratic Party is reformed! This matters most of all now because if the Democratic Party is not reformed we all lose.
0 # Guest 2010-03-02 02:38
Obama let me down. All the hope I had gone.
0 # Guest 2010-03-03 17:36
The reality is that we don't have any money. The debt we're piling up is astronomical compared to what went before. There is no free medical care. Even in other countries where they have universal health care, they have to pay for it. We don't want to here.

As Robert Reich, for whom I have always had great respect, I think his pitting government against business is just flat wrong. Certainly businesses go after the cash; that's what they are supposed to do. They hire people in the process. It was the government that put FDIC and FSLIC into place. Would you maintain your careful ways if you know there is someone who is going to cover you if you fail? We did it, to a certain extent, to ourselves. I think pointing fingers is useless at this point. We need to see if we can deal with the mess that is at hand and stop blaming everyone else for the problem.

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