The pivotal moment in the 2008 Democratic primary was not in a speech or a debate, not at any rally or town hall. It was at the meeting when Hillary Clinton was beginning to plan her campaign and Mark Penn convinced her that 2008 would not be a change election. When Barack Obama became the candidate of hope and change, and Hillary allowed herself to be the personification of the old guard Democratic Party, Obama won the primary right then and there.
Inexplicably after that 2008 experience, in 2016 Hillary again chose to be the candidate of continuity, the president who would build on the Obama legacy. And just like before, heavily favored Hillary Clinton lost. Even though voters liked Barack Obama pretty well, they were feeling like the establishment had left them behind, and wanted something different to shake up the system.
The simple fact is that the American people are restless and unhappy with what is going on in this country, not nearly so satisfied with the economy or the direction of the country as the well-paid political chattering class. Middle and working-class voters have not seen much benefit in the economy for a couple of generations, with wages flat, the costs of essentials rising, and personal debt going up. The crash ten years ago caused deep structural damage that many working families haven’t fully recovered from, because – again – most of the improvements in the economy have gone to the very top, not so much to them.
Which is why people keep voting for change. Starting with the 2006 election, the party out of power won every election except for one, 2012. Barack Obama was very lucky that year to be able to pivot against the Tea Party Republican Congress that had just been swept into power and a wealthy, clueless hedge fund elitist named Mitt Romney. Every other time, the majority of the electorate moved strongly for change:
- In 2006, voters decisively rejected George W. Bush’s war and economics, and Democrats won both the House and Senate.
- In 2008, as noted above, Democratic primary voters rejected the Democratic establishment, and voters in the fall decisively swept Democrats into power. Obama got a higher percentage than any Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, and the Democratic majorities in both Houses were the highest they had been since the post-Watergate late ‘70s.
- In 2010, Republicans picked up 63 seats, the biggest pick-up by either party since 1948, easily wiping out and overwhelming all the Democratic gains of the previous two elections.
- In 2014, Obama’s party got destroyed again, bringing them to their lowest level in the House since 1928, and ending their Senate majority.
- We all know what happened in 2016, and will never forget it.
- Last year, the out party wins big again, with a 40-seat pickup (despite all the Republican gerrymandering that had many people predicting we could never win the House back until after 2020 redistricting), putting Nancy Pelosi back in charge of the House.
And folks, Donald Trump being president hasn’t exactly brought working folks the structural change they’ve been demanding. Far from making people satisfied, the Trump presidency has made things ripe for change again. As 2018 and current polling trends show, voters are inclined to kick Trump out of office and change things one more time. But the dynamics of this tendency toward change are complex, especially for Joe Biden, whose campaign is essentially calling for a restoration of the Obama years. The theory is that Obama remains pretty popular, particularly with Democratic primary voters, and certainly more so than the Orange Menace in the White House. Given that Biden was Obama’s VP, taking advantage of Obama's popularity just seems to his campaign team like an easy path to victory.
There are problems with this plan, however. First, as Hillary learned, the restoration gambit rarely works. Voters felt pretty good in 2008 about the Clinton presidency, just as voters now do about the Obama presidency. But just because people feel good about a past president doesn’t mean that they want to go back to that era.
Second, while Obama kept the economy from spinning into a depression, and improved its trajectory in the latter half of his administration, working and middle-class folks- the crucial voters in this election- don’t exactly think of the Obama years as the best times of their lives. The financial crisis hit them hard; millions of jobs were lost and were slow to come back; housing prices collapsed; debt skyrocketed; their kids couldn’t pay for college or find jobs… It wasn’t exactly a golden era that they long to return to, and suggesting that all we need to do is get rid of Trump isn’t going to fly.
Americans are still unsatisfied and hungry for change. They don’t want to just get rid of Trump, they want to move the country forward. To win in this environment, Biden has to be clear that he is not just running to restore the Obama legacy, but that he will fight to make things significantly better for working folks as they are dealing with the forces that are squeezing them in the modern economy. And this was not the way to do it:
From about a recent fundraiser with Wall Street elites including Bob Rubin and Roger Altman, this quote stood out to me as the worst possible thing Joe Biden could say:
"We can disagree in the margins. But the truth of the matter is, it’s all within our wheelhouse and nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living would change. Nothing would fundamentally change."
In Biden’s defense, it’s important to add context. He talked at other points in the speech about how it was the middle class that built this country. He said that income inequality was a big problem and that the wealthy people in the room needed to understand that their taxes were going to have to be raised. Taken in that light, Biden’s remarks can be seen as him trying not to scare the rich people too much even though he was going to be tougher on them than Trump. But even if you give Biden the best possible interpretation of his remarks in their full context, I am still quite certain that telling Wall Street bankers that nothing will fundamentally change is terrible messaging.
The way for Biden to win this race (besides not saying dumb things about nasty segregationists he liked) is to go the exact opposite of “nothing would fundamentally change.” Joe Biden needs to sell himself as the guy who will fulfill Obama’s promises of hope and change, and push further. Biden needs to show that he would actually fight for the middle class, and that his priorities will be breaking up the big monopolies that are crushing small business, rebuilding the labor movement so that workers get raises and have more bargaining power again, and stopping bankers and CEOs from cheating consumers and working people. Democrats are the party of change, and to win, Biden needs to make clear that he will change this country on behalf of working families.
Yes, that kind of language will be scary to rich people, but it will send a message to voters hungering for change: even though I am part of the establishment, I’m still willing to shake things up.
Here’s my video take on Biden’s "no fundamental change" message: