The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

How Barack Obama Contributed to the Left-Populist Wave

Former President Barack Obama (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: How Barack Obama’s unkept populist promises set the stage for today’s political anger; the House GOP is in real trouble as 2020 approaches; and some kind words from a big name.

The Long-Forgotten Populist Rhetoric of Obama

Steve Elmendorf, Democratic lobbyist and campaign worker, tells Politico that his party’s candidates were nuts to criticize Obama’s record on the debate stage: “Stay away from Barack Obama. I don’t know why you would attack Barack Obama or his record or any part of him when he’s the most popular person in the party. And I don’t think it helps for the general election voters, either. I don’t know what they’re thinking.”

What they’re thinking, fairly or not, is that Obama left a lot of promises unkept and disappointed both loyal Democrats and not-so-loyal Democrats, and it’s safe to say so now.

It’s easy to forget, but way back in 2008, Barack Obama ran as a populist. Long before Donald Trump turned “drain the swamp” as his rallying cry, Candidate Obama said he would ban lobbyists from working in the government. As a candidate, Obama said he was going to amend NAFTA, declaring “our trade agreements should not just be good for Wall Street, they should also be good for main street.” He certainly spent enough time criticizing Wall Street and the big banks, never mind the fact that he voted for the bailout in 2008.

Right now, you’re probably scoffing, “yeah, Obama made a lot of promises he couldn’t keep.” And you’re right. As a wise man said, “all statements from Barack Obama come with an expiration date, all of them.” But that dynamic — a bold new president, promising to hold the privileged elites accountable — explains a lot about our current era of politics. In short, a lot of people believed Obama when he made those promises.

But lobbyists did work in Obama administration. NAFTA remained the same. As for the bailouts, $75 billion more came back into the federal treasury than went out, not that most Americans know or would believe it. But taxpayers understandably recognized a special deal for the rich and powerful. When Joe’s company down the street runs out of money and no one is willing to loan him more, he goes out of business. When some of the biggest companies in America ran out of money and no one is willing to loan them more, the federal government stepped in to save them.

The anti-populism of the Obama White House was probably personified by Treasury Secretary Geithner. Few conservatives would forget the absurdity of Geithner, who had failed to pay $34,000 in back taxes without significant consequence, testifying to Charlie Rangel, who had failed to report $75,000 in income to the IRS, about the importance of cracking down on tax cheats. (A detail I had forgotten from that era: Geithner lived rent-free in a $3.5 million Washington townhouse of a Wall Street bank executive in 2009 while he was overseeing the bailout; the executive was hired by one of the banks getting bailed out.) Many Americans didn’t follow the numbers, but they understood the lesson that the rich and powerful operate by different rules than the rest of us.

At the time, most Democrats didn’t complain too loudly, because Obama was their guy and they earnestly believed he was doing the best he could. A few years earlier, conservatives who said they hated deficits and the debt were generally quiet about increasing spending under George W. Bush, because he was their guy and they earnestly believed he was doing the best he could.

But now that the Obama era is receding further into the horizon in the rear-view mirror. . . Democrats don’t feel that same reflexive need to defend him. It is now safer to publicly say his presidency disappointed them in some ways, perhaps many ways.

Back on May 10, 2016, I wrote of a then-potential Trump victory:

How successful can Obama’s two terms be if Americans were willing to take a chance on an outsider who stands for everything he abhors? Obama took office optimistic despite the Great Recession he inherited. How would it look if eight years later he left the office to Trump, who has risen on the strength of a despairing, angry, bitterly divided electorate eager to “burn it down”?

It would look like Obama left Americans with so little respect for the office of the presidency that they thought Trump could do the job. 

Joe Biden may find himself increasingly lonely as the defender of Obama’s record as the 2020 Democratic primary continues.

Retirements Are Lousing Up the House GOP’s Hopes for 2020

Congressman Will Hurd of Texas announced he won’t run for reelection — meaning Republicans will now have to defend a seat in a district that Hillary Clinton carried by three points in 2016. Hurd is the only black Republican serving in the House.

A hard truth: A lot of GOP members of Congress are losing interest in serving in the House while Trump is president.

In 2012, 20 House Republicans chose to not run for reelection.

In 2014, 25 House Republicans chose to not run for reelection.

In 2016, 20 House Republicans chose to not run for reelection.

In 2018, 34 House Republicans chose to not run for reelection — and separately, another 14 left office early, resigning from Congress.

So far this cycle, ten House Republicans announced they’re retiring, and two are running for another office. That’s ahead of the pace of 2018. But perhaps more troubling than the number are the ones who are choosing not to stick around — better-known, senior, but not old names who have no known health issues or other personal issues that might prevent them running for another term. Pete Olson and Mike Conaway in Texas. Susan Brooks of Indiana, Marthy Roby in Alabama, one of the rising stars in the Tea Party wave of 2010. They’re just. . . not interested in being in Congress anymore.

Remember that seemingly high-stakes fight to elect Greg Gianforte in Montana’s lone Congressional district in a special election in 2017? He was the guy who allegedly body-slammed a reporter the day before the election. He’s running for governor in 2020.

The deadline to file for running for Congress as a Republican varies by state, from as early as November of this year to June of 2020.

Some of these retirements may reflect a frustration with being in the minority, but if that’s the case, these GOP congressman don’t see their party retaking the House in 2020. And each retirement makes winning those 218 seats a little bit tougher. Most of these are pretty Republican-leaning districts, but not all. (Democrats picked almost all of the low-hanging fruit in 2018.)

As I’ve noted, impeachment would probably cost the Democrats the House, or at least a big chunk of the seats that Republicans need to close the margin.

Trump disrupts the usual ways of operating in Washington, and a lot of his fans love him for it. But that disruption also makes it harder to pass legislation. Veteran GOP lawmakers have told me they’ve concluded they’ll never get any useful messaging help from the White House. The day of the big Obamacare vote, where McCain voted no, the previous 24 hours of the news cycle had been dominated by Anthony Scaramucci calling up The New Yorker and talking about Steve Bannon’s anatomy. The White House is a daily circus, and if the message from the president on a particular day aligns with the message the House GOP wants to promote that day, it’s a miraculous coincidence.

On any given day, Trump can see something on Fox News and start tweeting about it, with no warning to anyone else in the party, taking over the news cycle. He changes his mind without warning,

Most Trump fans insist their man never says or does anything racist. Even Hurd, a black Republican who says he’s going to vote for the president in 2020, sees it differently.

“When you imply that because someone doesn’t look like you, in telling them to go back to Africa or wherever, you’re implying that they’re not an American and you’re implying that they have less worth than you,” Hurd said.

Hurd also repeated his earlier pledge to vote for Trump if he’s the Republican nominee in 2020. He said Hispanics, African Americans and other groups would be receptive to conservative themes if they weren’t drowned in racially charged rhetoric.

I know, I know, Hurd is just one of those anti-Trump Trump-voting Texas GOP congressman.

Trump is going to win 2020 in a landslide. He also said that a “Red Wave” was coming in 2018.

ADDENDA: Between Two Scorpions is up to 123 reviews on Amazon! Also, Brad Taylor – author of Daughter of War and the New York Times-bestselling Pike Logan series and a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel — offers this kind praise: “A thoroughly researched thriller with a threat vector I wish I’d come up with — and a bite of humor rarely seen in the genre.”

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