The Big Three Democrats tack to the center

When you talk about the Big 3 Democrats in American politics, the focus shouldn’t be on President Barack Obama, Senate president Harry Reid and minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

Obama deserves his place on the list, to be sure.

But his wing-men at the top of the heap are New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and California Governor Jerry Brown.

Between them, Gov. Cuomo and Gov. Brown represent 56 million Americans — nearly one out of every five citizens — and their states dominate the nation’s economy and cultural life.

As “big state” governors, they’re talking much the same problems that Mr. Obama confronts:  breathtaking budget deficits, ferocious partisanship and gridlock.

The interesting thing is that all three are moving politically in the same direction, tacking toward the center at a time when many in the Democratic Party’s liberal wing want a confrontation with conservatives.

Mr. Obama’s economic policies have more or less exactly mirrored those of President George Bush, who launched the program of bailouts and stimulus that have continued over the last three years.

He’s been hawkish on the war in Afghanistan.  And he’s shown no great eagerness to partner with environmentalists on major battles such as climate change.

Wall Street bankers have actually fared better under Mr. Obama’s policies than they did under Mr. Bush.

Meanwhile, in New York Gov. Cuomo has battled public employee unions into submission, laid off thousands of government workers, slashed social program spending, and refused to raise taxes on millionaires.

He also appears amenable to a new hydro-fracking energy industry in New York state, a vision that many green groups are fighting tooth and nail.

In California, facing his own budget crisis, Gov. Brown has launched a full-throated assault on public employee pensions, fighting to raise the retirement age and downscale benefits.

The Wall Street Journal responded to the trend this way;

We are witnessing a ‘Nixon to China’ moment as Democratic governors embrace the need to amend and reduce health and retirement benefits of public employees (see New York).

It remains to be seen whether these Democratic governors have more sway than their more conservative Republican counterparts when it comes to taking away benefits from public sector union members.

Gov. Cuomo, at least, is indeed showing some real success in balancing New York’s books while maintaining core government services.

And most independent economists think Mr. Obama’s leadership during the financial crisis spared the U.S. a far deeper recession, preventing the implosion of Detroit’s auto industry and staving off a collapse of the nation’s big banks.

Still, it’s unclear whether this kind of centrism is palatable, at a time when tea party groups occupy the high ground on one end of the political spectrum and the Occupy Wall Streeters are pitching their tents at the other end of the spectrum.

The polls are mixed at this point.   79% of the people who voted for Mr. Obama still say he’s doing a good job.  But his favorability rating among self-described liberals has dropped to just 69%.

When a third of your core supporters aren’t thrilled about giving you a second term, that’s trouble.

Gov. Cuomo is doing better, with 65% of all voters — not just Democrats — approving of his work so far.  (I couldn’t find fresh numbers for Gov. Brown.)

In the end, it appears that all three of these Democrats are staking their political fortunes on the idea that competence and compromise should trump ideology.

For that to work politically, you have to produce tangible results.  That means lower unemployment and a sense that the long economic crisis — at the Federal and the state levels — is finally passing.

We’ll find out next year whether voters think Mr. Obama passed that test.

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15 Comments on “The Big Three Democrats tack to the center”

  1. Paul says:

    There seems to be some serious inaccuracies in this post:

    “Mr. Obama’s economic policies have more or less exactly mirrored those of President George Bush, who launched the program of bailouts and stimulus that have continued over the last three years.”

    Really, besides TARP what “stimulus” or other bailout programs are you referring to?

    “And he’s shown no great eagerness to partner with environmentalists on major battles such as climate change.”

    His Cap and Trade legislation went down in flames but how can you say that he was not with environmentalists on this which is probably the largest battle on that front of the administration to date?

    “For that to work politically, you have to produce tangible results. That means lower unemployment and a sense that the long economic crisis — at the Federal and the state levels — is finally passing.”

    He hasn’t and it isn’t but that doesn’t seem to have hurt him as much as one would expect.

    Apparently results are not expected anymore.

  2. brian mann says:

    Paul –

    Before Mr. Obama took office, Mr. Bush launched an emergency $13.4 billion bail-out of Detroit carmarkers, a policy Mr. Obama continued

    TARP, as you point out, was a centerpiece of both politicians’ economic policies.

    Bush also pushed for and passed an economic stimulus plan in 2008 worth roughly $150 billion, designed to get the economy rolling again.

    His stimulus came mostly in the form of tax breaks. Similarly, the lion’s share of Mr. Obama’s stimulus came in the form of tax breaks, rather than spending.

    Environmentalists have been pushing Mr. Obama to do a lot of things (aggressively enforce the Clean Air act, veto the Keystone XL pipeline project) that he’s resisted.

    Mr. Obama famously gave the green light to offshore oil drilling, a deeply unpopular move among many on the left, just before the Deepwater horizon oil rig went up in flames.

    So yes…I think it’s fair to say that most in the green community see him as a reluctant partner at best.

    To your last point, I think the jury’s still out. If unemployment is still at 9% next summer, I think Mr. Obama will have a tough ride to November.

    But if unemployment is at 8.3%…my money would be on a second term.

    –Brian, NCPR

  3. Paul says:

    When was the last time we re-elected a president when the unemployment rate was above 8%?

  4. Paul says:

    Also, there is no way the unemployment rate will be at 8.3% next summer. Brian, how do you think that is possible? Do you?

  5. brian mann says:

    Yeah, I agree — I think 8.3% would be a big, big stretch.

    But I also think after the path we’ve been down, this President might be cut a bit more slack than past presidents.

    I know three years have passed.

    But I think a lot of people still remember the bag of burning doom (that’s a euphemis…) that Mr. Obama was handed when he entered the White House.

    A good question is what is the sweet spot this time for Mr. Obama?

    What number is possible in terms of improved unemployment — 8.7%, 8.5%?

    And what number is the voting public willing to accept?

    I also think trend-lines matter. If we hit early summer next year and unemployment is dropping and gas prices are moderate, this becomes much harder for the GOP.

    –Brian, NCPR

  6. scratchy says:

    “Similarly, the lion’s share of Mr. Obama’s stimulus came in the form of tax breaks, rather than spending.”

    Im pretty sure the majority of the stimulus was spending.

    “Meanwhile, in New York Gov. Cuomo has battled public employee unions into submission, laid off thousands of government workers,”

    My understanding is that no state workers have been laid off by Cuomo, and, after PEF approved the contract they won’t be.

  7. Paul says:

    “But I also think after the path we’ve been down, this President might be cut a bit more slack than past presidents.”

    He will have to be cut more than a “bit”. But like I said he is doing quite well considering. Makes no sense but it is what it is.

    Now he has a new solid message. Tax the wealthy – he isn’t wavering, it won’t do much of anything, but he is being firm and his base seems to approve.

    Gas prices would help him. But I don’t see much happening there.

    http://38.96.246.204/forecasts/steo/

    An attack by Israel on Iran could throw a serious wrench into that one. In the past we have usually had a president that could maybe influence an outcome like that. Not sure we have one right now.

  8. myown says:

    “When was the last time we re-elected a president when the unemployment rate was above 8%?” That would be Roosevelt in 1936 at 16.6% and 1940 at 14.6%.

    Reagan was was re-elected in 1984 with unemployment at 7.2%.

    It won’t be impossible for Obama to be re-elected with high unemployment numbers because two recent polls show a majority of voters believe (correctly) that Republicans are obstructing efforts to get the economy going.

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/political-animal/2011_11/putting_the_sabotage_question033359.php

  9. Paul says:

    Brian, I should have conceded that you made an excellent case for the Obama extension of Bush stimulus in your comment. He just put it on steroids. I stand corrected on that point.

  10. Paul says:

    myown,

    Thanks for the info. so 1940.

    I think there are some interesting parallels between Reagan and Obama. In an article I saw recently someone made the point that both Regan and Obama are guys that most folks like and they want(ed) to support.

    The difference for Regan was that he came in at 7.5%. Had unemployment run up over ten, he took drastic steps to fix that and by the end of his first term we had seen it drop to 7.5%. Like we said here I think there is nobody in their right minds that thinks we can even get back to where we were when Obama took office.

    And he didn’t even have to deal with as large a spike as Regan.

    myown, I like president Obama what is it that he has done that makes me want to support him?

  11. Pete Klein says:

    This discussion points out why there is the Tea Party and the OWS movement.
    Many feel that after all is said and done, it doesn’t matter if you vote Democrat or Republican or even if you vote at all.

  12. Mervel says:

    State governments in general cannot print money and borrows as the federal government can, they must face reality. The solutions are not really their choice, thus they have to cut, it is not really a political decision, but a mathematical one.

  13. brian mann says:

    Mervel – Cuomo has resisted raising taxes and pushed a 2% property tax cap for local governments. Those aren’t mathematical decisions. They’re political — and perhaps philosophical — positions.

    –Brian, NCPR

  14. myown says:

    “…tea party groups occupy the high ground on one end of the political spectrum and the Occupy Wall Streeters are pitching their tents at the other end of the spectrum.”

    Not sure that’s true. Both groups have reasons to distrust Republicans and Democrats and have much in common in seeing the political process as failing the average person and middle class.

  15. Gary says:

    To get re-elected one needs to be able to point to their accomplishments in office. Combo and Brown are both in positions to be able to do so. Obama is in serious trouble. I’ve heard all the arguments and excuses as to why he hasn’t accomplished very much but the bottom remains the same!

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