Democrats need to regain the initiative

By Nick Milano

On Wednesday night, President Obama will face the nation in delivering his second State of the Union address. With his domestic political agenda in a state of disarray, he must pivot off of the results of Massachusetts’ special election to reintroduce himself and his goals to a nation of weary voters. He rolled into office over a year ago with more momentum and more of a mandate than President Bush ever had, and yet a year later, the only major legislation that made it through Congress was a stimulus bill derided by many as too small and too dependent upon tax breaks. Obama has demonstrated none of the must do attitude that defined Bush’s presidency. Taking back control of his presidency and his platform will have to start with Wednesday’s speech.

As a young voter and a liberal Democrat, I represent two important demographics that the president has begun to lose. Young voters came out in hordes to vote and volunteer for him. Liberal Democrats perceived the Democratic control of Congress and a Democratic president as a sure sign that progressive policies would be forced upon the Republicans, much like Bush’s conservative policies were forced on Democrats – and he never had the numbers in Congress like Obama does.

On the stimulus, Obama wanted a bipartisan bill, so he made the package much smaller than what many economists thought was needed. He then backed down when Republicans demanded that much of it be based in tax cuts, even though the evidence proved they are less efficient than government spending. When the bill passed Congress, no Republicans in the House voted for it. In the Senate, only three Republicans did and since then, one (Arlen Specter) switched his enrollment to the Democratic Party.

On health care, President Obama dictated a hands-off approach and let Congress control the fate of the bill. The result has been disastrous. Sen. Baucus’ Gang of Six guided the bill to the middle and even after it was sent to the Senate floor, conservative Democrats forced the bill further to the middle. Obama never cracked the whip and the delays have doomed the bill. Now, there is increasing doubt over whether any of it will ever pass since state Rep. Scott Brown became the 41st Republican senator, thus enabling a filibuster. The future of health care reform is doubtful, at best.

If someone told me this is what would take place in his first year, I would have been in shock. President Obama’s second year, beginning with the State of the Union address, must be ground in determination – determination to not let Republicans seize and water down his message. He must shift to a more populist message. If the election in Massachusetts has any lasting impact, it will be that the Republican who believes in tax cuts and big business won the populist vote. Coakley’s ineptitude at campaigning and a shocking inability to connect to voters lost to Scott Brown’s pick up truck. Not much of a surprise.       

President Obama’s second state of the union must mark a return to his populist campaign style. Despite his Ivy League education, his ability to connect with and inspire people sets him apart from most politicians. He must be able to connect to them on a different platform – his recent announcement to tax banks and to enact legislation to limit their sizes are two very populist messages that must be repeated ad nauseum. He must focus on job creation. He must lose his hopes for bipartisanship – when he controls both Houses of Congress, it means more people support the Democratic Party platform than do the Republican platform.

The State of the Union address must be just the beginning. President Obama cannot hope to give one good speech and hope that Congress does the rest. He chose bipartisanship over what many thought was best for the country. By focusing on populist messages and seizing the initiative, Obama can whip Congress into action and limit Democratic losses in the 2010 mid-term elections. Obama has to follow the State of the Union address with a tour around the country, detailing the many ways that banks have taken advantage of lax regulation. Half-measures and letting Congress dictate terms of legislation will only continue to result in watered down attempts at reform. Obama must change the direction of his presidency before it is too late.

Nick Milano is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]