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Obama and the Democratic base

In a recent Gallup poll Americans chose President Kennedy as the most popular president of the last five decades. The Kennedy legacy lives. Those who deny this do not understand the soul of the Democratic Party or the state of public opinion in America today.

{mosads}President Obama was elected in 2008 with the dramatic and high-profile
support of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). One of the most
widely quoted statements in 2008 was by Caroline Kennedy, who said Obama
would be “a president like my father.”

What does it tell us that even
after the 2010 election in what was called the year of the Tea Party,
Americans chose a populist progressive Democratic president, not a
Republican or conservative president, as their favorite over the last 50

History suggests that America is a centrist nation, with shifts
to the left or right that move with national circumstances. The
elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010 reveal a nation in revolt against
whichever party carries the torch of the status quo. In 2006 and 2008
this favored Democrats and liberals. In 2010 this favored Republicans
and conservatives. This is not a nation moving to the right. It is a
nation demanding change.

One hallmark of 2009 and 2010 was the
demobilization of the Democratic base of grassroots workers, small
donors and large liberal donors. They had brought a wave of activism
through the Obama and Clinton campaigns of 2008. They were never
mobilized by President Obama to support a governing program of
transforming change, as President Reagan mobilized his conservative

This demobilization inevitably led to the demoralization and
depression of Democratic voters, workers and liberal donors. Those who
were powerfully mobilized in 2008 were largely ignored in 2009 and 2010,
and often addressed with condescension and contempt by those who
resented their passion for powerful change and dramatic

Democrats ran almost even in 2010 polling among all voters, but
lost a landslide in the House of Representatives among actual voters
when many voters who favored Democrats stayed home. Any party that
demobilizes, demoralizes, depresses and demeans its base is destined for

There are common threads that run through the Kennedy legacy
and the Reagan legacy. The Kennedys and Reagan passionately advocated
positions of high principle to support real change, aggressively
mobilized their supporters to fight for dramatic changes they advocated
as president, and wisely knew how to negotiate with political
adversaries and when to cut the final deals.

On healthcare the major
initiatives advocated by progressive populist Democrats were also
supported by a majority of independent voters who favored the public
option, a “Medicare buy-in,” stronger actions against alleged
price-fixing by insurers, and lower drug prices through safe Canadian

On the economy a majority of independents joined progressive
populist Democrats supporting more action to create jobs and help the
jobless, more enforcement against insider trading and other market
abuses, fewer bonuses for those bailed-out bankers who helped cause the
crash, ending tax cuts for millionaires, acting to prevent foreclosure
abuses, and campaign reform to end the dominance of special-interest

The Democratic base was never roused to fight for this long list
of “changes we can believe in.” Independent voters were never asked for
their support for these actions that a majority of them believed

President Obama should be informed by the example of the Kennedys
and Reagan. While Republicans are attacking the president, Democrats
should be mobilizing their base in response, not further depressing the
base with “balanced” condemnations of “the left and the right.”

Democrats’ mantra should be to stand tall, fight hard, organize first,
mobilize for battle and negotiate later, from strength.

This is how
Reagan and the Kennedys so often prevailed. They never unilaterally
disarmed their base. They never surrendered positions of principle
before a negotiation began. They knew the difference between smart
compromise and perpetual retreat. They knew that elections are lost when
a great party’s most faithful voters are moved to stay home, and won
when the faithful are moved to fight on matters where they agree with a
majority of independents.

President Obama and Democrats can succeed if
they learn the lessons of Reagan and the Kennedys. They should hear
message of voters who choose John Kennedy as their most popular
president in 50 years. Fight hard, then negotiate from strength.

Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander,
then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree
in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He
can be read on The Hill’s Pundits Blog and reached at

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