In the face of five years of the deepest economic troubles this nation has seen since the 1930s, which put voters in a bad mood, and veritable floodgates of millionaire money unleashed by Citizens United (far, far surpassing anything in American history), an incumbent president won a clear victory and over 50 percent of the vote. Except for FDR in 1936, Barack Obama is the only Democratic president to win reelection in an economy this tough, and he is the only one except for FDR and Andrew Jackson to get over 50 percent of the vote. And beyond the presidency, with Democrats having to defend over twice as many seats in the Senate as the Republicans and pundits earlier in this cycle suggesting that a Republican Senate was practically a lock — and again with all those hundreds of millions of dollars of millionaires’ money spent against them — the Democrats actually look like they will be picking up two seats.
This remarkable, historic achievement was accomplished with the kind of old-fashioned middle class populism that modern day DC sophisticates have been saying for 25 years doesn’t work anymore.
Little more than a year ago, in the fall of 2011, after an ugly deal with the Republicans on the debt ceiling that had followed two earlier deals with the Republicans on the budget that left a bad taste in Democrats’ mouths, the president was at his lowest point, politically. His poll numbers were bad, his base was upset, the swing voters he was trying to court thought he looked weak. The reelection looked like it was in deep trouble. But the president made the right political decision and made clear he was fighting for the American middle class and those young and poor people who were striving to get into it. He channeled his inner Teddy Roosevelt, giving a speech that was a tribute to TR and was the kickoff for a yearlong campaign firmly rooted in the hopes and aspirations of working- and middle-class voters.
He enthusiastically embraced the car company bailout that had been so unpopular when he had first done it. He started strongly defending Obamacare after Democrats had run from it — and been pilloried with it — in 2010. He recess-appointed aggressive consumer watchdog Rich Cordray to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and asked aggressive Wall Street prosecutor Eric Schneiderman to co-chair a new task force to investigate financial fraud. He hammered the Ryan budget for voucherizing Medicare and block-granting Medicaid and cutting taxes for the wealthy. He stuck to his guns on boldly attacking Romney’s role at Bain Capital when Wall-Street-friendly Democrats were calling on him to back off. He started talking about, and working on, rebuilding our manufacturing base.
It worked. Turns out that both Democratic base voters and the mostly working class swing voters liked this new populist approach. So despite those tough odds that I discussed in the first paragraph, President Obama found his rhythm and found his way. After Mitt Romney — the perfect candidate to run a populist campaign against — became the Republican nominee, the Obama campaign established a small but steady lead in the key swing states which, through all the ups and downs of a long, tough campaign, they never relinquished.
And how did we Democrats do so well in the Senate? By running as populist a group of candidates as in many of the most competitive races I have seen in my political career. And looking at the results in those races it was, for the most part, those candidates who carved out a clear populist path who won the close races, and those that didn’t who lost them. The only partial exception I can think of is Tim Kaine, whose campaign focused a lot on bipartisan reasonableness, although he also did tie himself closely to Obama’s populist campaign message. I also am less familiar with the themes from the Carmona-Flake race, so that may have been an exception to the trend, as well. But look at the Dems who won the tough races in the Senate:
- The headliner of the night besides the presidential race was Elizabeth Warren. She is the ultimate in tough-on-Wall-Street/fight for the middle class populists, having built her entire career around those kinds of economic issues. She will be an instant leader in the Senate, with a huge national platform.
- The Senate incumbent who was easily the most highly targeted by Karl Rove, the Chamber of Commerce, and right wing billionaires like the Koch brothers was the number one working class populist in the Senate, Sherrod Brown of Ohio. He kicked their collective asses in spite of their $35 million plus onslaught against him.
- Tammy Baldwin will get a lot of attention as the first openly gay Senator, but her campaign in Wisconsin was based on taking on Wall Street and fighting for regular folks — one of her main stump speech talking points was bragging about how she had opposed the repeal of Glass-Steagall. She was running against popular ex-Gov. Tommy Thompson, Rove and the Chamber and Gov. Walker political machine attacked her mercilessly, but she ended up winning a solid victory.
- Chris Murphy took on the queen of the WWE and all her money, and beat her solidly. Murphy is one of the leaders in Congress on the big-money-in-politics issue, and his fighting against the special interests was what won him this race.
- Heidi Heitkamp is a protégé of long time populist and Wall Street foe former Senator Dorgan, and she bucked a Romney landslide in North Dakota to win against the sitting House member from North Dakota. She will likely be the same kind of tough-minded fighter for the middle class Dorgan always was.
- Martin Heinrich ran a populist race against a former Republican congresswoman who was supposed to give him a much tougher race, but he ended up winning easily and will likely join fellow New Mexico Senator Tom Udall as one of the leading progressive populists in the Senate.
- Jon Tester bucked the MT political establishment six years ago to win both a primary and his Senate seat, and he apparently won a very tough reelection by going back to that kind of populism.
Who lost the other competitive Senate races? Shelley Berkeley, whose race seemed like it was more attack and counter-attack on personal issues with her opponent; and Bob Kerrey, who made cutting Social Security a big plank in his platform.
This is the most firmly pro-middle class, tough on Wall Street and big business Senate class we’ve had in a long time, and I couldn’t be more excited.
The president now has a choice to make. He can take the advice of the Washington establishment and punditry class and go back to D,C,’s version of “centrism” which, to establishment folks, usually means giving Wall Street and other big business lobbyists what they want while cutting things the middle class counts on like Social Security, Medicare and education. Or he can stick with the political strategy that won him this election, uniting his base and working-class swing voters in a coalition for the middle class and willing to take on the powers that be. Let’s hope he sticks with what worked so well for him in the past year.
Michael Lux is the co-founder and CEO of Progressive Strategies, L.L.C., a political consulting firm founded in 1999, focused on strategic political consulting for non-profits, labor unions, PACs and progressive donors. In November of 2008, Mike was named to the Obama-Biden Transition Team. Previously, he was Senior Vice President for Political Action at People For the American Way (PFAW), and the PFAW Foundation, and served at the White House from January 1993 to mid-1995 as a Special Assistant to the President for Public Liaison.
This piece was first published on The Huffington Post.