A compelling case

A COMPELLING CASE…. There was an interesting item in The Hill last night noting that White House officials, most notably President Obama and Vice President Biden, are “concerned that liberals disappointed with Obama’s policies might stay home this November,” and are taking steps they hope will prevent a disaster.

Adding Elizabeth Warren to the president’s team might help, and it probably wasn’t a coincidence that when Biden raised his profile, he was sure to spend quite a bit of time with Rachel Maddow. Indeed, during the interview, he specifically told “our progressive base… you should not stay home.” The V.P. added, “You better get energized, because the consequences are serious for the outcome of the things we care most about.”

The next question, then, is how to get the left energized before the well-documented enthusiasm gap moves Congress sharply to the far-right. In the midst of a campaign, there are generally two choices, energize the base by: (a) pointing to a record of accomplishment or (b) pointing out the radical qualities of the other side. Republicans are excelling exclusively on the latter; for Dems it’s more complicated.

The majority party shouldn’t have too much trouble reminding the Democratic rank-and-file about the threat posed by radicalized Republicans — by nominating so many hysterical extremists, the GOP has made that task easier. Besides, as we continue to struggle with crises left over from the Bush/Cheney era, the stench of Republican failure is still very much in the air.

But what about the record of the last 20 months? I’ve long believed, and continue to believe, that there’s a chasm between perceptions and reality when it comes to the White House’s policy accomplishments. Ezra Klein had an item the other day that rang true to me, and I hope he won’t mind if I quote it at length.

The White House held a conference call today for Elizabeth Warren and various bloggers and writers. Most of it was what you’d expect, but Warren did mention that Rep. Barney Frank once told her that getting a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was a “pipe dream.”

I think some people will see that as a mark against Frank, but he was right, at least judging by Washington’s record over the previous 20 or 30 years. In fact, a lot of the Obama administration’s accomplishments were pipe dreams.

A near-universal health-care system? Why would Obama and the Democrats succeed when Truman, Nixon, Carter, and Clinton had all failed, and politicians as adept as FDR and LBJ refused to even make the attempt? They’ve seen the numbers, right? The health-care industry is bigger now, and richer, and there are no more liberal Republicans. There’s no way.

A $787 billion stimulus? Yes, it was too small. But everything Washington does is always too small. And within the confines of that stimulus, the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress managed to make a host of long-term investments that would’ve been considered huge accomplishments in any other context, but are largely unknown inside this one. Huge investments in green energy, in health information technology, in high-speed rail, in universal broadband, in medical research, in infrastructure. The Making Work Pay tax cut. The Race to the Top education reform program. No recent president has invested in the country on anything like that level.

If voters who backed Obama two years ago are prepared to make an evaluation based on accomplishments, and decide whether to vote in 2010 accordingly, the White House has a compelling case to make, the popularity of these successes notwithstanding.

As unsatisfying as it seems to grade on a curve, it’s worth noting that while Obama took office with sky-high expectations, he was also against the backdrop of a country that was practically in free fall. Arguably no president in American history started his first day with a list like this: the Great Recession, two deadly wars, a jobs crisis, a massive deficit and budget mess, crushing debt, a health care system in shambles, a climate crisis, an ineffective energy policy, an equally ineffective immigration policy, a housing crisis, the U.S. auto industry on the verge of collapse, a mess at Gitmo, a severely tarnished global reputation, an executive branch damaged by corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement, and an angry, deeply divided electorate.

The president was told to clean all of this up, quickly, without the benefit of a minority party willing to play a constructive role. And just to make things really interesting, Obama was also told that for the first time in the history of the United States, every initiative he came up with would need mandatory supermajorities just to pass the Senate.

And despite all of this, what have seen? The Affordable Care Act, the Recovery Act, Wall Street reform, student loan reform, Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, expanded stem-cell research, nuclear arms deal with Russia, a new global nonproliferation initiative, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and the most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years.

But what about the unpopularity of the Democratic successes? Why are Democrats understandably reluctant to run on the most successful two years of policymaking in decades?

The White House’s message machine has often fallen far short of late, but part of me thinks the pitch at this point should go something like this: we were moving in the wrong direction, but we’ve made some unpopular moves to get back on track.

It’s like a recovery from a serious illness — you feel miserable, the medicine tastes awful, and the shots hurt. You’re left frustrated, weak, and maybe even embarrassed. The physical therapy and recovery process takes too long and leaves you wondering if it’s even worth it.

But it is. Recovery happens. It wasn’t pleasant, and the illness wasn’t your fault, but you make progress and you get better, even if there are times when that seems that’s unlikely.

Getting back on your feet and thriving again may seem like a “pipe dream,” but once the toughest moves are behind you, real progress lies ahead — that is, unless you decide to go back to the quacks who got you sick in the first place.