Opinion

Democrats, It’s Time to Get Moving

Democrats are engaging in a lot of soul-searching after Tuesday’s elections. Much of that soul-searching involves trying to find a better way to respond to the critical race theory attack; that attack was clearly effective even though it’s a dog whistle wrapped in a scam (public schools are not, in fact, teaching C.R.T.). However, I have nothing interesting to say about how to deal with it.

Where Democrats have a clear path forward is on the closely related issues of Covid-19 and the economy. What’s crucial is that Democrats not take the election setbacks as an indication that they’ve overreached — that President Biden should back down on vaccine mandates, that their economic agenda is too left-wing. What the public perceives isn’t a party doing too much, but a party doing too little, and Biden and his allies need to end that sense of drift.

There’s no evidence of a significant voter backlash against Biden’s social spending proposals. True, most people have no idea what these proposals are — all they’ve heard are top-line numbers, with even those often reported without context ($1.75 trillion would be only 0.6 percent of gross domestic product over the next decade). Beyond that, however, issue polling suggests that the main components of the proposed spending range from fairly popular to extremely popular.

And for what it’s worth, if Democrats pass something along the lines we’ve been hearing, Republicans will have a hard time responding with an Obamacare-style fear campaign. They will, of course, try; but what in Build Back Better can be construed as death panels?

The problem, however, is that Congress still hasn’t passed anything. Politics junkies may be following the twists and turns of negotiations between progressives, who have given up a huge amount of ground, and pro-corporate Democrats, mainly Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. But all the broader public knows is that no bill has been approved; the impression most people have is that Democrats aren’t getting anything done.

And this sense of drift comes when people are feeling bad about the economy: Consumer sentiment has plunged since the spring.

Why are consumers unhappy? Jobs are readily available; workers are quitting at record rates, which means they’re confident about finding new employment. But people are upset about rising prices and, to some extent, supply-chain issues — although fears of empty store shelves appear to have been exaggerated.

It also doesn’t help that the economy hit something of an air pocket in the third quarter. Real G.D.P. and total employment continued to grow, but not at the high rates many had expected.

So what can the Biden administration and its allies do to improve public perceptions of the economy?

Much of what’s distressing the public is beyond U.S. policymakers’ control, even though voters tend to blame whoever is in the White House. Gasoline prices, for example, have risen because of developments on world markets, not anything happening here. The same goes for food prices. And supply-chain problems, mainly reflecting a scramble to buy durable goods at a time when people are afraid to consume in-person services, are hitting many countries.

America’s third-quarter economic slowdown, however, wasn’t matched abroad. For example, over the same period euro area economies grew at an annual rate of almost 9 percent.

There’s no mystery about why we had a slowdown here that wasn’t equaled in Europe. It was all about the Delta wave, which was much worse on this side of the Atlantic. That wave is now receding. As it does, early indications, including claims for unemployment benefits and surveys of purchasing managers, suggest that a renewed economic surge is already underway. And as consumers start to feel safer, they may also shift demand away from stuff to services, which would ease some of the supply-chain pressures.

So the way forward for Democrats seems fairly obvious.

First, pass something. It doesn’t have to be perfect; in particular, given incredibly low borrowing costs, it doesn’t matter whether the proposed sources of revenue will fully pay for the new spending. What’s crucial for the politics right now is that something significant gets passed and that Biden then goes out and sells it.

Second, control Covid. The evidence is now overwhelming that vaccine mandates work and that threats of mass resignations if workers are required to get shots are mostly empty. When confronted with the prospect of actually losing a job, a great majority of workers comply.

On Thursday the Biden administration announced that Jan. 4 would be the deadline on two major vaccination mandates — for health care workers and for employees of companies with payrolls exceeding 100. It should stick to this plan and ignore the screams of protest.

Will Democrats be able to turn their fortunes around if they push forward on their agenda and hang tough on vaccines? I don’t know. But they’ll certainly fail if they respond to Tuesday’s setbacks by curling up into a defensive ball.



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