The last three Democratic Party presidents have misread the public’s priorities and paid a political price for their agenda setting. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama pursued healthcare reform early in their first terms, a vital policy and moral goal that misaligned with a public hungry for economic recovery. Their successor, Joe Biden, was elected on similar grounds to his two Democratic predecessors: restoring the vitality of an economy wrecked by Republican misrule. And yet his party prioritized a “Build Back Better” agenda that, while popular in its individual parts, did not align with the more immediate needs of an American public battered by pandemic and depression.
The unifying thread between these three presidential missteps is a focus on social welfare over economic recovery. It’s not surprising that Democrats would prioritize expanding the social safety net upon gaining a rare trifecta in Washington. After all, many Democrats are in politics because they wanted to strengthen our country’s threadbare and cruel social welfare system. I am too. But practical politics demands that elected leaders pay close attention to what they really have a mandate for, and in the cases of each of the last three Democratic administrations to enjoy a united Congress, Democrats have emphasize policy goals that seemed distant from the kitchen table concerns of the swing voters who elected these governments.
Democrats would argue that healthcare, childcare, and financial supports for families with children via a much larger Child Tax Credit all contribute to the foundation of economic security. The public tends to agree: after a decade or two. Social safety net programs are very seldom repealed, except in cases where they seem to contravene core American values. The rest, now including Obamacare, become cherished elements of the American policy structure. Implementing these programs when the public cries out for direct economic relief, however, is a misfire that has damaged the political standing of numerous Democratic presidents.
Believers in the social safety net should be especially sensitive to anything that weakens a Democratic president’s political standing. That’s because the Republican Party has become thoroughly radicalized around an agenda of intentionally punishing the American poor. Republicans will absolutely attempt to repeal Obamacare again if they win unified control of government under a restored Donald Trump, so extreme is their anguish at seeing the United States of America kind of establish universal healthcare. Programs that benefit poor, disproportionately Black and Brown families will likewise be under threat of severe budget reduction, and powerful Senator Rick Scott has even intimated that he would like to jeopardize our most sacrosanct old-age programs, Social Security and Medicare.
Democrats need to become more astute in reading the public’s mood. Their party should take pride in having created, piece by piece, the American social safety net. But they also need to sharpen their political instincts and address the public’s immediate needs, lest the middle-class voters who elected them take out their frustrations with the Democrats by electing a fully radicalized GOP. It’s often ruefully said that Democrats are “bad at politics.” They’d better get better, because the price of Republican governance gets higher by the year.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.