The elusive independent

If political strategists are to be believed, there is one creature in American politics that trumps all, an elusive beast whom, if tamed, ensures electoral hegemony. Elections, we are told, are about independent voters. This zealous faith in the ‘moderate independent’ has led the Democratic Party on a wild two-year goose chase: amidst the greatest opportunity to affect significant political reform in eighty years, the Obama Administration has time and again eschewed the bold policy initiatives needed to end the recession in favor of moderate policies it hopes will appeal to independents.

Yet if the past two years have revealed anything, it’s that such ‘independents’ exist only in the befuddled minds of talking heads. Were there a cohort of moderate-minded independent voters, it would be quite pleased with the Administration: the President’s record thus far includes a stimulus bill balanced with Republican-advocated tax cuts and Democrat-sponsored social spending; a health care bill that reflects Richard Nixon’s proposal to Edward Kennedy in 1974 and Republican Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s offer to Bill Clinton in 1993; and financial regulatory reform that angered both liberals itching for reimplementation of New Deal regulatory framework and free-market ideologies who believe less regulation is always better. So independents who, we are told, crave bipartisanship and centrist policies, must be thrilled. Right?

Wrong. At 30%, Obama’s approval rating among independents is near an all-time low. Most Americans, it seems, care much more about the outcomes of policies than the ideological logic that supports them. The major political concerns for most Americans are unemployment, the mortgage crisis, and rising health and education costs, not vague concepts like “big government.” Had the Obama Administration pursued the most effective policies to address these concerns — a robust public jobs program, significant mortgage relief, a public health care option and increased funds to public universities — without regard for the screams of “socialism” at it by the GOP, it would have found most Americans on its side. Complaining about “big government” is popular when under- and unemployment is 16%, but a healthy economy has a way of making theoretical criticisms of expansionist government from dusty Friedrich Hayek books less appealing.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has eschewed such policies, tempering itself in an effort to appeal ‘moderate.’ The result has been the treacherous cycle of the moving center: each time the Administration enacts a moderate proposal that has less affect than the vigorous Keynesian jobs program needed, it prolongs the economic crisis, which pushes the political dialogue to the right, incentivizing even more tepid Administration policies less likely to engender recovery.

In February 2009, instead of deploying his immense political capital to create the public jobs programs desperately necessary to restore employment security and increase aggregate demand, Obama opted instead for a stimulus that, after tax cuts and funds to compensate for holes in state and local government budgets, included a mere $330 billion in public spending. Given the $1.1 trillion shrinkage in GDP, the stimulus was enough only to prevent the continual loss of 800,000 jobs per month, not to stimulate new growth. When voters unsurprisingly punished the party in the 2010 midterms, the Administration erroneously inferred that the election constituted a backlash against government activism. Obama pivoted to the ‘center,’ agreeing to an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% so as to appear ‘bipartisan.’ Ironically, 82% of Americans opposed the extension.

This summer, the chase for the ‘elusive independent’ reached new heights of absurdity, as Democrats conceded to a dramatic shift in focus from job creation to the entirely unrelated issue of long-term debt. Unsurprisingly, public outrage at the disregard for unemployment correlated with a dramatic 12-point drop in Obama’s approval rating among independents. Still worse, the reckless $2T in spending cuts of the debt-reduction agreement sent the markets into frenzy as firms’ medium and long-term demand forecasts fell and fear of a double-dip recession gripped the nation.

Now, in the hopes of again appearing ‘moderate,’ the Administration offers a jobs bill that, the New York Times reports, most economists believe will reduce unemployment by no more than 0.5%. Yet the President seems more concerned with the false idol of bipartisanship than the predictions of social scientists. A bill supported by both Democrats and Republicans — as he tediously reminded us his proposals have been in the past — is more desirable in the Administration’s view than one that is effective. Nothing better epitomizes the false notion that ‘truth always lies in the middle.’

As the economy sputters and the 2012 election approaches, there is only one way to break the vicious cycle of the moving center: Democratic Party must tirelessly position itself as the party of jobs by vociferously advocating a large scale, New Deal-style public jobs program. Let the GOP cry “socialism.” We have social science — and proven results — on our side.

Sam is a junior. You can reach him at ssussma1@swarthmore.edu.

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