“We believe that in order to preserve our own freedoms and pursue our own happiness, we can’t just think about ourselves….We have to think about our fellow citizens with whom we share a community.”
-Barack Obama, 2011
I live in Ohio, making me something of an uber-citizen, or so I gleaned from this year’s campaign coverage. Our fair state was it. When the commentariat at MSNBC called Ohio—and I admit I was three sheets to the wind when they did—they called the nation. It was over. Farewell, Mitt Romney.
We had a canvasser stay at our house in our college town of Athens, Ohio. He started six weeks before election day. He covered the rural counties surrounding us. I know it’s not easy work, having done it myself. Every night he would come back from ten hours of door knocking and foot stomping, and I would cook or “nuke” him some dinner, and he would tell me about a mantra heard at many doors: “I’m not voting for that rich son of a…” It felt like 2004 in reverse: it wasn’t that people were super-enthusiastic about Obama—although more were than expected—it was that Romney didn’t clear the likeability or trustworthiness threshold, even after that first debate made Obama look like a sputtering fool. It was the same way people talked about “Booosh” back in 2004. They didn’t love the sitting prez or the Iraq War, but they sure as hell didn’t know what that John Kerry was all about. Every night our canvasser confirmed the firewall Obama had built in Ohio.
The pollsters—the odd heroes of this election season—knew what was going on. The auto bailout had done it for Obama in Ohio, from most reports. Perhaps it’s better to say that it was the spillover effect from the auto bailout. And it was certainly Mitt Romney’s chilling declaration that he would have allowed the industry to go belly-up and go away. Here it was: a big issue of great importance helping push the president to victory.
Who today remembers the “Cash for Clunkers” program? Few of us. Because it didn’t get enough attention or seize hold of our collective memory. Remember the huge strings attached to the GM bailout? Of course not, because we suffer amnesia and instead want to believe that government proved weak-kneed in the face of corporate power. Remember how the president insisted on stronger fuel standards for cars produced by companies receiving government assistance? Of course not, because we bought hook, line, and sinker the idiotic blather about an industry that deserved to fail and instead got lascivious kickbacks. We probably remember the rhetoric about “Government Motors” more than the high risk venture Obama took.
As progressives and left-liberals look at the election (including many here at Dissent), they often grow gloomy about what was not discussed—drone wars, global warming (a blip of that with Hurricane Sandy at the end didn’t count), maldistribution of wealth. For sure, there was not as much discussed as should have been (see my own take on this about foreign policy at Salon). But in Ohio, it felt like a central debate had occurred, if not always out in the open. We really had an issue on the table that dealt with government’s role in intervening and directing the economy to a better place. And there was real evidence that job losses and the crappiest variety of a recession had been averted, because one candidate believed in the power of governmental action, whereas the other didn’t.
That was the lesson behind Obama’s touting of the Volcker Rule: help the banks but hold them accountable. That was the lesson of Obamacare: further insurance companies’ monopoly on the market but ensure that they protect some basic values (many very popular among Americans, like new rules forbidding insurance providers from discriminating against people with preexisting conditions and allowing kids to stay on their parents’ plans). The first time I ever saw a “I Love Obamacare” bumper sticker was during this election, and it made me wonder why I hadn’t seen that before. Maybe because the election sharpened the alternatives for citizens. As much as Romney was trying to play to the center, the differences were apparent, especially to those who remembered the auto bailout in Ohio.
In other states, it was gay marriage and marijuana legalization that won big-time, by actually being on the ballots in certain cases (and, though I have no proof, probably driving up the number of progressive voters coming to the polls). Those are very different issues from the lingering impact of the auto bailout. I call it “easy” liberalism—give people their “rights” and leave them the hell alone. If someone wants to smoke a joint and not force me to do the same, that’s fine. If someone wants to have the right to marry a person of the same sex, alright, even if I don’t swing that way. I have always expected the country to move in the direction it has on both of those issues, gradually and over time.
What I have not expected is to see government regulation, industrial policy, and downright “planning” garnering applause and support. But that’s what happened in Ohio. It was the bailout, meaning not the “rights” side of liberalism but the Keynesian, communitarian side (perhaps the sort that Obama himself learned from those classes in political theory taught by Roger Boesche at Occidental College). That’s the side Michael Grunwald has painstakingly shown in his The New New Deal. It’s the idealistic side of Obama that made him tear up when thanking his campaign workers while recounting his days as a community organizer. And it’s the side on which progressives and liberals should be pressing the president now. Obama has always had an obsession with “on the one hand,” “on the other” line of reasoning. Right now, he’s got to have a sense that Ohio shows how the communitarian element in liberalism doesn’t necessarily trump the “rights-based” liberalism, but it certainly demands his attention as he enters into a second term.
The fact that his first act after winning election is to take tougher stance on tax cuts for the wealthy surrounding the deficit debate should warm our hearts. No, he’s not welcomed the cast of Occupy Wall Street into the White House or acquired a public option in health-care reform. But he has moved in the right direction and seen that there are enough votes on his side of the ledger. Now’s the time for more.
Kevin Mattson is on the editorial board of Dissent and author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the “Rocking, Socking” Election of 1952.