The headlines hang like storm clouds over the White house: “Economy Caught In a Depression Not A Recession.” “Over One Million foreclosures filed This Year, Home Prices Slide.” “Jobless Rate Rises to 9.8 percent.”
Fueled by anger at these economic conditions, the storm clouds burst back in November. It is now raining opposition to Obama. Sixty-two more Republicans are now in Congress, many of them Sarah Palin Republicans, members of the wingnut Tea Party set.
More like a lynching party than a loyal opposition, two things unite these New Right politicians. First, they want to see Obama fail. Second, they want to shrink the federal government to a fraction of its size.
A war of maneuver has already begun. The New Right Republicans have proposed a constitutional amendment to give states the power to veto acts of Congress.
The strong national government we have today is a legacy of the Civil War, the deadliest war in American history, in which 620,000 people died. The Thirteenth Amendment, which freed the slaves, the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of the law, the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed freed slaves the right to vote all represent a seismic shift of power away from the states to the federal government.
The New Right seems willing to fight a kind of second civil war to reverse this, to shift power back to the states. If, heaven forbid, they succeed, that will mean no federal program is safe, especially entitlement programs such as welfare, schools programs, and programs such as Medicare.
Randy Barnett, a law professor who has made a point of opposing the health-care reform law, drafted the amendment. The stage is set for battle. Let’s look at how the opposing forces are deployed.
Obama is caught in a kind of pincer movement in which he is attacked on two sides. The Republicans are on one side. Obama described them as “hostage takers” holding unemployment benefits for two million Americans hostage unless he caved on giving tax breaks to millionaires. But the Republican “hostage takers” had help from Blue Dog Democrats — conservative Democrats who vote with the Republicans. They oppose Obama from inside the Democratic Party itself.
Obama’s main strategy seems to be to regroup. Ignoring party labels, Obama is understandably trying to forge a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. Eisenhower allied himself with the Soviets in WWII. Obama is like Eisenhower trying to fight with whatever allies he has. I understand this. I don’t think it will work.
A coalition of middle-of-the-road politicians may allow Obama to survive his term. It may lessen the gridlock and paralysis that the New Right seems to want to create. But a Dem-publican coalition is a coalition for the status quo, not a coalition for change.
And real change is needed. America needs the equivalent of a new New Deal to get out of what is looking more and more like a depression.
Roosevelt put America back to work building roads. Obama needs to shift from nation-building in Afghanistan and other countries to rebuilding America. Our own infrastructure is crumbling and inner cities need rebuilding, especially inner-city schools.
Obama has to put millions back to work. He has to stop the massive foreclosures that are washing away the middle class as Katrina washed away New Orleans. To take on these huge issues, he needs a popular movement, not a coalition of Washington politicians.
He needs to turn in the “top-down model of change” for the grassroots “from the bottom up” model. That was his style when he was an organizer in Chicago. The Civil Rights era came into being because a progressive coalition of people — blacks, Jews, unions, liberals — all joined hands and demanded change. This was essentially the coalition that brought Obama to power. He needs to recreate this coalition now. Roosevelt sold the New Deal with fireside chats on the radio. Obama’s fireside chats could take place on television, in public parks, in high school auditoriums and on the Internet. With the people behind him, the New Right will have to back down.
For 2011, Obama should have only one resolution. In the words of Al Gore: “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, organize.”
Donald Jones is a professor of Law at the University of Miami.