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Wednesday, February 8, 2017


My remarks about Obama seem to have been misunderstood, so let me explain.  I am not suggesting that Obama should set the agenda for progressives.  I am not suggesting that he run for a third term after a four year interim [unconstitutional].  I am not suggesting that Michelle Obama run for office.  Here is what concerns me:  The only realistic way to stop the horrible things the Republicans are doing and plan to do, while also beginning the long-term progressive transformation of the country, is to take back the House.  This cannot be done merely by organizing and motivating the politically active segment of the left.  There are just not enough votes.

Let me give you some figures.  These are rough estimates only, but that is sufficient.  In 2016, there were more or less 220 million eligible voters.  Roughly 134 million, or 60%, voted.  In 2018, if the customary behavior of American voters continues, only 88-90 million votes will be cast.  Of the 44-46 million people who voted in 2016 but will not vote in 2018, fewer than half are Democrats, which is to say maybe 20 million [Republicans, who are on average older and Whiter and richer, are more likely to vote.]  The secret to taking back the House is somehow to motivate enough of those 20 million to stop Tweeting or Yelping, get up off their Barcaloungers, and schlep on over to the local voting site to cast their ballots. 

Now it is, I think, a pretty safe bet that not many of those who are marching and demonstrating and protesting and contacting their Representatives are among those 20 million low-energy voters.  And since the American electoral system is ordinal, not cardinal, there is no way for the intensity of their preference to be recorded.  The vote of an airhead who never gives a moment’s thought to politics counts for exactly as much as the vote of a dedicated marcher, blogger, donater, and protester.  So somehow we need to get a significant number of millions of men and women to do what they are not ordinarily inclined to do and vote in an off-year election.

This is where Obama comes in.  He has an unparalleled ability to fire up Democratic voters and get them to the polls.  If, as I suspect, large numbers of Trump voters will be bummed out by his behavior as President by the time 2018 rolls around and hence not inclined to drag themselves to the polls, we might have a really good shot at pulling off what is called a Wave Election.

That, and only that, is what I had in mind when I speculated about the possibility that Obama might throw his weight into the struggle.  Suppose all of this happens.  How much will it actually accomplish?  That depends in large measure in the character and political leaning of the candidates who are recruited to run for House seats [and also State Legislative seats], and this is where the energy and commitment of progressives plays a major role.  If we recruit and get nominated genuine progressives, then in a wave election they will transform the House.  Will Obama work to find and motivate genuine progressives?  No, that is not where his heart lies.  But we can!


Jerry Fresia said...

After Obama's 8 years of blocking not only left-leaning candidates for Congress (not alone, of course - but through his "lieutenants") and worse, embracing elites of every stripe and pursuing Republican policies, he has lost credibility as well as the ability to fire up Democrats. The swing voters in 2018 will be the Trump-Democrats (from 2016) who responded in 2016 to both Bernie's and Trump's attack on the banks and 'free trade."

Where was Obama? Pushing the TPP. Simply put, he blew his chance to lead. Even now, as leaks from the WH suggest that Trump is an ignorant lunatic, utterly unfit to do much of anything except function as a mafioso, many alarmed citizens are looking for ways to impeach the guy. But, Lt. Pelosi is dampening such efforts, while the one Democrat (that I know of) who is talking about impeachment, Maxine Waters, is linking impeachment possibilities to the Putin-Trump pre-election relationship. Good grief; if excitement is the necessary motivator, how is it that these people in the Obama wing simply can't recall that Sanders could get 30,000 people to his rallies? Ans: it's the wrong direction. Obama is yesteryear.

I don't understand, Professor, why you are seemingly placing all your eggs in the electoral basket. I like Chomsky's refrain that the "60's activists" civilized the nation. Or if we go back to the 30s, we can recall that in '32 FDR ran on a balanced budget platform; ie, the socialists/communist labor activists explain, to a large degree, the resulting Keynesian FDR programs. As you say, the incredible outpouring of activism today is unprecedented. I think we need to do whatever to expand, encourage, and sustain that impulse. Remember WI when labor activism exploded in a confrontation with Gov. Walker (2011?) It's energy was sucked away because the battle was displaced into the electoral arena, where money and corruption hold sway. I'm not saying to avoid electoral politics but I am saying that only a social justice movement will create a wave election that lifts not just boring centrists Democrats, but a new breed of social justice Democrats.

Finally, Blacks, once again, may be the pivotal constituency - if not women. Take a look at Nina Turner ( - a new leader. I'm sure there are dozens more out there like her - spilling with energy, clear about moving away from oligarchy, and far more capable of getting the disenchanted off their
Barcaloungers. Obama has dampened the energy of the Nina Turners for eight long years. Enough already. The nation is simmering. It's time to blow past the adult-in-the-room cabal.

Tom Cathcart said...

Jerry, I'd love to believe in the power of a social justice movement to create a wave election, but the biggest social justice movement of the 20th century couldn't prevent Nixon being elected in 1968 and 1972, the two elections at the very height of the movement. Seems to me "all of the above" is our best shot.

James said...

Whatever the case may be about Obama--and I tend to take a middle road here, believing that Obama can help rally some to the cause but someone more principled like Bernie must lead--it should be clear to everyone by now that this is naive:

"If, as I suspect, large numbers of Trump voters will be bummed out by his behavior as President by the time 2018 rolls around and hence not inclined to drag themselves to the polls..."

No. Let no part of your strategy depend on some rational move by Trump voters. The election and the last weeks of Trump as *resident have shown that, while he may certainly alienate some moderates, there are enough supporters that are willing to look past the most egregious moral failings and most transparent attacks on democratic values for the purpose of either (1) political expediency, e.g., Paul Ryan types, or (2) fanaticism of some sort (religious, supremacist, etc.)--there are enough of these that nothing must be taken for granted anymore. You cannot depend on the next move of a movement based on the dissolution of the very institutions that are the foundation of free and just political discourse.

Let's not talk about a wave election yet, which might just encourage complacency.

David Palmeter said...

It was a given in the last campaign that TPP was a terrible thing. Trump was against it; Hillary re-evaluated her "it's the gold standard of trade agreements" position as Secretary of State to oppose it. But with one exception, I've never heard any specific objection.

The exception was the investor-state dispute settlement provision. That, however, was said to be a relatively minor part of the total agreement. I fact, there was some speculation that Hillary, if elected, would have gotten the provision dropped and then supported it.

I have to confess that I haven't read a word of he agreement, and don't intend to. Right now I'm reading Shakespeare and Joyce and trying very hard not to read the day's news. But those of you who are strongly against--Why?

Chris said...

Jerry is absolutely right, it's a known fact (for those who investigate enough) that Obama has attempted to prevent Ellison from being DNC chair, ensured corporate Dems remained over progressive Dems, appointed corporate over progressive dems to his cabinet, and largely served an establishment agenda. Now one could argue, as Wolff is, that still we need him to fire up the base to beat Trump, but again, empirically, Obama resided over MASSIVE loses in the senate, house and state elections. That's evidence that he can't fire people up beyond general presidential elections.

Ed Barreras said...

To add to Tom's point, I would point out that Nixon won overwhelmingly in '68 and absolutely overwhelmingly in '72. And alas, that second victory, coming as it did in the war's waning days, likely wasn't due to the direct impact of the anti-war movement, but rather to the fact that Nixon no longer had George Wallace to contend with in the South.

Of course, those historical comparisons are in many ways inapt. We aren't living in Nixon's America anymore. We're living in the America of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater. Their political progeny have won the day. Yet the sad irony is that this group remains much less popular than Nixon ever was and have only managed to seize control of the government through a sort of coup. The way I see it, this has come about primarily through 1) the rise of ultra-right-wing media, and 2) grotesque abuses of gerrymandering. The only competitive races Republicans face are the primaries, where it's a race to out-crazy one's opponent. This, combined with the rules of our late 18th-century Constitution, accounts for the horrendous mess we're in.

As Professor Wolff says, our only hope is to get our people to the polls in mid-term elections where they don't normally show up, hopefully with a depressed turnout from disillusioned T***p voters. If Barack Obama can play a useful roll in accomplishing this, then by all means bring him out. Yes, he's despised by a little less than half the electorate. But those are the hopeless deplorables. Among the people whom we need to turn up, he remains incredibly popular.

Would any of this portend a return to business as usual? I would hope not, and in fact I think not. The youth in the Democratic party has already moved to the left, as evidenced by the fact (which is still amazing) that Sanders's genuinely progressive message actually got through to a wide swath of the electorate. There's no putting that toothpaste back in the tube.

I. M. Flaud said...

Let's not forget that Obama appointed Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers to manage the recovery from the financial crisis of 2008, on the dubious principal that the people who were responsible for the global financial collapse would be most qualified to restore order. This led to the Tea Party. It is no stretch to imagine Obama stumping for Trump and the Republicans in 2018, on the principal that the persons who reduced the Earth to a lifeless, cratered, radioactive smoldering ruin would be most qualified to reanimate it.

David Palmeter said...

I think it's stretch to say that Geithner and Summers were "the people responsible for the global financial collapse." True, Geithner was president of the NY Fed,a very important position, but small potatoes to both the Fed itself (Greenspan) and 7 years of the Bush Administration and Republican policies. Summers had not held public office for 7 years. My villains are Bush and his Administration, Lehman Brothers, AIG, the other big banks and the fraudsters who bilked home owners, leaving them underwater. Geithner was small potatoes given the role of the rest of those bastards, and Summers wasn't even a potato, large or small, at that time.

Chris said...

No, but Citigroup was, and Obama's cabinet was handpicked by them:

But all this is besides Wolff's point. Wolff is arguing that whether or not Obama is a progressive, he can rally enough people together to remove republicans from congress and eventually defeat Trump, which is a good.

But again, I'm not sure this is true, given the empirical fact, the republicans took the house and senate and numerous states under Obama, and America is in an anti-establishment mood, and Obama is perceived as the establishment.

I. M. Flaud said...

Perhaps calling Geither and Summers "the people responsible for the global financial collapse" is overstated, but the Tea Party wasn't hallucinating about the Obama administration's choice of highly-connected Wall Street insiders for his economic team. It is not only true that Geithner was president of the NY Federal Reserve: he was appointed Treasury Secretary by the Obama administration. Summers was appointed by Obama to the National Economic Council; while he was Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton, Summers supported the repeal of key provisions of the Glass-Steagal act. More than a potato. The connection both men had with Robert Rubin is well documented.

David said...

Professor Wolff, thank you for your two posts on the prospect of Barack Obama helping to get out the vote in 2018.

One of the common themes in Paul Fussell's books on the First World War (The Great War and Modern Memory) and the Second World War (Wartime) is that all wars begin in innocence. At the beginning of a war, people are generally incapable, for psychological reasons, of taking in "the horror, the inevitable ruin of civilized usages, which war will entail." The political power struggle we are now witnessing in this country is not a war per se, but it is like a war. To borrow from Thomas McGrath (who was, of course, reversing Clausewitz's famous statement), politics is the continuation of war by other means.

I don't know what will happen to our country and the world in the coming two years, but I suspect it will be worse than my innocence will allow me to envision. Therefore, if Barack Obama turns out to be a factor, even an important factor, in regaining control of the House and/or Senate, then I will welcome his help.

David Palmeter said...

I think it’s important, when looking at Obama’s economic team, to take into account what he faced: the worst collapse since the Great Depression. Building and sustaining market confidence was essential—and the Clinton team certainly had the credentials to do that. Rubin, Summers et al presided over what were the best eight years the economy had seen in decades. The last two years had budget surpluses—something no Republican has done in my memory. (It would have to have been sometime before the Depression).

Someone referred to the fact that the stimulus package was too low. Indeed it was, and they new it and tried unsuccessfully to get more. They needed Republican votes, and the price set by Olympia Snow and Susan Collins was that the amount be less than $1 trillion. I remember reading of a reporter who asked Rahm Emanuel for a reaction to a Paul Krugman column to the effect that the stimulus should be greater. He said something to the effect of, “I don’t need Krugman to tell me that the stimulus should be bigger. I need him to tell me how to get 60 votes in the Senate for it.”

I. M. Flaud said...

Some of us would have preferred William Black on Obama's team, rather than the legislative enablers of the crash--but we made that argument to no avail at the time. A more precise statement of the counterargument was that the legislative enablers of the crash--Wall Street insiders--were in the best position to reverse the collapse. (Discussion with true believers who insist that market prices always equal opportunity costs was counterproductive.) However, if Obama can GOTV, why not.

In more hopeful news:

Update from Ben Wideman, a Mennonite pastor in Pennsylvania about a visit to his Republican senator's office:
"Just got back from a visit to Senator Pat Toomey's Johnstown office with 15 other Borough of State College & Penn State area people to talk about the immigration ban.
Here are my takeaways;
1. Everyone we spoke with was rattled. They have never experienced this much constant feedback. The phones haven't stopped since the Inauguration and they admitted they can't check voicemail because there is no pause to do so.
2. Letters are the only thing getting through at this point [Note: I've heard that postcards are better because they can impound letters for five weeks to check for contaminants]. Regional offices are a much better mail destination because the compile, sort, and send everything. DC mail is so backed up right now it takes twice as long to send things there.
3. Toomey's staff seem frustrated with Trump. They said his barrage of Executive Orders are not how government is supposed to work, and was what they hated during moments of the Obama era. One of them said, "we have a democratic system and process. Trump needs to stop behaving like a Monarch."
4. Our representatives are listening because people are raising their voices. This feels like no other political moment in recent time for them.
5. Toomey's staffers are far more empathetic than I assumed. Also far more technology illiterate (one asked me how to use twitter, and how we already knew about Toomey's published statement). They resonate that the immigration ban feels immoral and unAmerican.
6. Regional offices are not designed to handle this volume of unrest.
7. Personal stories matter. Tell the stories of people being impacted by arbitrary religious and ethnic legislation. Staffers want to know.
8. Don't stop. Do whatever small part you can do to keep raising your voice to your representatives. Not just this issue, but every way marginalized people are being (or will be) exploited under this President."

Calgacus said...

Jerry Fresia: Mostly agree but-

Or if we go back to the 30s, we can recall that in '32 FDR ran on a balanced budget platform; ie, the socialists/communist labor activists explain, to a large degree, the resulting Keynesian FDR programs.

Almost everyone says this, but not with the greatest accuracy or perspicacity. Yes FDR ran on balanced-budgets most of the time in 1932. But he also made it clear (at the end of his main speech on economics in the election) that he would ask for deficit spending if that what was necessary to employ people. So he was "Keynesian" from the very beginning - because he was about being practical to the core.