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Dems Doing Liberalism Badly

Dems Doing Liberalism Badly

By David Paul Kuhn - December 4, 2009

Democrats lived down the Great Society's excesses for decades. Yet today's Democrats appear unable to even get basic liberalism right. A historic progressive moment has passed. The cost is millions of jobs and over the long term, the perception of liberalism's efficacy.

Barack Obama inherited a progressive moment unseen since Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt before him. In this crisis, liberals had a chance to prove Ronald Reagan wrong.

"This was a great turning point in history, the end of the conservative era. Conservatism imploded just as it imploded during the Hoover years," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University. "That opened up an opportunity for real progressive change in America and I think Obama has missed the moment."

The story is the stimulus package. The Bush-Obama rescues of the financial sector were reactive and overly blunt weapons to prevent the really bad. They were soft on Wall Street but ultimately averted the economic panics of old. The stimulus was a different beast. It was Democrats' first big chance in decades to position government to affirmatively promote good, the keystone principle of active state liberalism from Lincoln to both Roosevelts to LBJ. Thereafter, the recovery of liberal thought was invested in the economic recovery act.

"If we don't act, a bad situation will become dramatically worse," Obama said of the stimulus bill in early February. "Crisis could turn into catastrophe."

Nearly nine months later, the stimulus has proven unable to turn the unemployment tide. The Obama administration said the stimulus would keep the jobless rate around 8 percent. The rate stands at 10, 0.2 below last month because of hiring in what the Bureau of Labor terms "temporary help services" as well as continued hiring in the health care industry. The recession has, in total, lowered the nation's payroll by 7.2 million jobs.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently reported that the stimulus generated between 600,000 and 1.6 million jobs. It lowered the nation's unemployment rate between 0.3 and 0.9 percentage points. Significant, but not exactly "catastrophe" avoiding. At best, as of now, the stimulus has cost $491,875 per job created. Meanwhile, the nation still languishes in double-digit unemployment.

The Democratic leadership let the stimulus morph into a buffet of poorly targeted spending. "The public face of the stimulus package has been the worker in a hard hat," as the Associated Press reported last summer. But in reality, the AP reported, most of the roughly $300 billion in state dollars was to go to social services—two-thirds to the health care sector alone. Yet the month before the stimulus passed, health care was the only major sector to add jobs.

The public has noticed. Only 7 percent of Americans believe the stimulus has created jobs, a recent CBS News poll found. Almost half of adults remain hopeful. But as we've seen this year, political expectations can quickly sour.

Meanwhile, the philosophical repercussions are already apparent. An August Gallup poll found that 57 percent of Americans believed "government is trying to do too many things"—a 10-point rise since March and the highest rate since the 1990s.

Thursday, ahead of the new unemployment numbers, Obama convened a jobs summit. "We cannot hang back and hope for the best when we've see the kinds of job losses that we've seen over the last year," the president told reporters.

But where was this aggressive attitude in February? Where was the jobs summit then? Why did the Democratic leadership not stick to what Democrats once did best? Why did Obama outsource the stimulus package to Congress? Why did Obama not personally invest his then-popular image into a jobs bill?

"FDR took control of the debate. Johnson too. Obama hasn't taken control of the debate," Lichtman said.

Obama's grip is far weaker today. He is a president with roughly half the country behind him. The public overwhelmingly opposes a second stimulus program. So do key moderate Democrats in Congress. Stimulus disappointment undercuts any new jobs bill. Deficit constraints are now at the fore of the American mind.

What was sold as a new New Deal, in the end, was not. The byproduct is unemployment unseen in a quarter century. And Obama clumsily appears on the side of the two bête noires of the day: big business and big government.

A direct jobs program, like Roosevelt's WPA, would have been difficult. But Obama and the Democratic leadership never tried.

FDR had more bipartisan support. He did not face the rampant use of the filibuster. But FDR also focused myopically on the economy in 1933. And today's stimulus, for its special interest boondoggles, was far easier to politically oppose than a true jobs bill.

Obama framed Thursday's jobs summit as a search for "every demonstrably good idea." Yet, to belabor a point, the old liberal idea is forgotten: new jobs create new voters.

There are few signs of infrastructure spending across the land because there has been a relatively small amount spent. Meanwhile, based on BLS data, blue-collar laborers account for about two-thirds all job losses in this recession! FDR's "forgotten man" is forgotten.

Administration officials say that direct jobs programs are inefficient to administer. Never mind the irony that liberal red tape, like environmental concerns, has undermined the core liberal agenda. But here we are, nearly nine months later, and Obama's way has hardly proven efficient. Only about a quarter of the stimulus has been spent.

Blame rests on the powerful. That's the Democrats. And liberalism is, in Lichtman's words, "a huge casualty."

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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