If you've been watching the hit TV show "Lost,"then you're familiar with the concept of parallel universes. That is, alternate realities in which history turned out differently, because people made different decisions.
It's a useful concept when it comes to thinking about President Obama's current predicament. On a variety of fronts, the Obama administration is suffering from an inability to show Americans the parallel universe in which its past policies were not enacted—and the future that will result if its current proposals bite the dust.
That's most obviously true with the early, fateful decisions to continue TARP and bail out the auto companies. They arguably averted the collapse of the global financial system, the virtual extinction of consumer and business credit, and 1930s levels of unemployment (especially hard-hit would have been the upper Midwest). Nevertheless, no matter how often the president tells us his actions kept a deep recession from developing into a Great Depression, it remains an abstract proposition for the people who are currently unemployed. The same is true for the 2009 economic stimulus package, which virtually all experts, public and private, credit with saving about two million jobs. The continued job losses reported each month make it hard to claim that one has succeeded by avoiding even greater unemployment.
The problem of “proving a negative” is even more daunting when it comes to prospective policy proposals. Critics savage Obama for a health care plan that doesn’t do enough to limit costs. Obama responds that health care costs are going up anyway, without a plan. But it’s not easy to convince people that the status quo is riskier than a large and complicated series of changes in how Americans obtain health insurance. That’s why the White House has made such a big deal out of Anthem Blue Cross’s gargantuan premium increases for individual policyholders in California. It is, they argue, a sign of where the status quo is headed absent reform. They do not, unfortunately, have such a convenient example that will help them explain the need for climate-change legislation, as conservatives, stupidly but effectively, cite this winter’s heavy snowstorms as disproof for the scientific consensus about global warming trends.
There is one way to deal with Obama's dilemma. Although it’s difficult to prove that American life under the president's policies is better than life without them, it should be easier to point to another parallel universe: life under Republican policies. But such an effort requires a basic strategic decision. Should Democrats point back to the reality of life under George W. Bush, which most people remember pretty vividly, and simply say today’s GOP wants to “turn the clock back”? Or should they focus on current Republican proposals, such as they are, which in many respects make Bush policies look pretty responsible? It’s hard to take both tacks simultaneously, since the extremism of contemporary Republican politics is in no small part motivated by a determination to separate the GOP and the conservative movement from association with that incompetent big spender, Bush, who failed because he “betrayed conservative principles.”
It appears the White House is increasingly inclined to take the second, forward-looking approach to highlighting the GOP's desired alternate reality, rather than the first, backward-looking one. As much as some Democrats wail about the "bipartisanship" rhetoric that surrounds Obama’s outreach to Republicans, which he's employed while challenging them to direct debate over health reform and economic recovery, the president's main intention is clear. He wants to force the opposition to help him present voters with a choice between two specific courses of action—or simply admit that their strategy is one of pure gridlock, obstruction, and paralysis (which, as my colleage J.P. Green has pointed out, spells “G.O.P”).
The stake that Obama and the Democrats have in convincing Americans to consider these parallel universes couldn’t be much higher. This November, if voters remain fixated on the current reality, rather than the terrible alternatives, then the midterm elections really will be a referendum on the status quo and its Democratic caretakers. Explaining life as it would be without Obama, and as it could be under Republican management, is not easy. But Democrats must do it or face catastrophe at the polls.
Ed Kilgore is Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.