Barack Obama’s biggest mistake began immediately after he took the oath of office and moved into the White House. Focused on governing in a time of crisis, he forgot about politicking. And as his appearances before the public and the press became scarcer, he opened the door for the Right to define him.
It doesn’t matter that most of their “facts” were false: that the president is a Christian, not a Muslim; that he was born in Hawaii, not Kenya; that his health care plan did not set up “death panels;” that his administration cut taxes, rather than raising them; that his bailout of the auto industry did not bleed the country dry, but saved jobs. What mattered was what people believed. And those beliefs too often were left to the interpretation of Fox News, the Republican Party, and those shouting through the megaphones at Tea Party rallies.
Just as important were the people who were hurting and felt abandoned. Unemployment has stalled at an “official rate” of just below 10 percent. Add in the underemployed and those who’ve stopped looking for work, and more than one in six working-age Americans are getting paid nothing or a lot less than before the recession. Meanwhile Obama, intent perhaps on fixing things, pushed forward with a multi-pronged agenda. He stopped talking to the very people he had asked to believe in him.
If the president takes one lesson from the massacre that is the midterm election of 2010 (my apologies for swearing the Dems would lose “only” 33 seats), it should be this: Never stop talking to the American people. Politicking must precede governing, and it must accompany governing. Not cheap-shot politicking, but the kind that explains to people each step of the way what the administration is either doing or trying to do. Weeks after Obama took over the presidency, I wrote that he should reinstitute something akin to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats. I can only hope he does so now.
If instead, the president bends over backwards to accommodate the suntan man, John Boehner, and his Republican House majority, Democrats likely will be massacred in 2012, too. Because while it’s true that Republicans and many independents were fuming this election day, it’s equally true that plenty of disillusioned or simply disheartened young people, minorities, and progressives simply stayed home.
Keep in mind that but roughly 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in this election. It is fairly typical of midterm elections in this country; it also means well over one in two potential voters stayed home. And as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne noted in an NPR interview, the 40 percent that did vote was considerably older and whiter than in 2008. In 2008, he noted, exit polls showed that 18 percent of the electorate was under 30. This year? Just 11 percent, he said. The percentage was the lowest in a few decades, The Washington Post reported.
Liberal elders can wring their hands and say “the kids should vote.” They should. But that misses the point. This generation needs to be given a reason and a way of staying engaged (maybe the president’s Fireside Chat should instead be a live chat). Unlike candidate Obama, President Obama has given them neither. It’s not just time for him to start, but time for him to sustain that effort right up until the next election.