How progressives can win back the South: Jobs

Unemployment Olympics.jpgFor most people in America, the #1 issue right now is the recession -- and as Bob Herbert argues in a New York Times op-ed today, Obama's failure to grasp the depth of this sentiment represents his and his party's biggest Achilles heel:
The Obama administration and Democrats in general are in trouble because they are not urgently and effectively addressing the issue that most Americans want them to: the frightening economic insecurity that has put a chokehold on millions of American families [...]

Instead of focusing with unwavering intensity on this increasingly tragic situation, making it their top domestic priority, President Obama and the Democrats on Capitol Hill have spent astonishing amounts of time and energy, and most of their political capital, on an obsessive quest to pass a health care bill.

Health care reform is important. But what the public has wanted and still badly needs above all else from Mr. Obama and the Democrats are bold efforts to put people back to work.
Obama's lack of focus on jobs and the economy has certainly made his road more difficult in the South. We'll know more about how Southern states are faring when the new state-by-state jobs numbers are released tomorrow.

But despite some encouraging signs of new business hiring, the new stats will likely show the South is in the same situation as when Obama gave his State of the Union address in January, when eight out of 13 Southern states had unemployment rates higher than 10%, the national average.

Of course, even a laser-like focus on jobs and the economy won't completely turn around Obama's and the Democrats' popularity in the South, where a complex blend of cultural conservatism, right-wing agitation and racial animosity have driven Obama's poll ratings (at least among whites) into the ground.

But to look at it another way: If there is any one issue that could possibly revive progressive prospects in the South, focusing on the economy stands the best chance, for several reasons:

1) It taps a deep vein of economic populism in the South: In 2006, a Pew Center survey found that 47% of all people who identified as "populists" lived in the South. At the time, the questions used to measure "populism" included support for repealing Bush's tax cuts for the rich, belief that businesses make too much profit and support for a minimum wage increase.

In 2010, Southern populism might include support for a Consumer Protection Agency and investing heavily in fast job-creation strategies.

2) It plays to progressive strengths: Last week, when 19 GOP senators -- including eight from Southern states with high unemployment rates -- voted against extending jobless, progressives were given a gift.

It was a clear example of how those representing everyday Southerners don't speak for their interests -- not in some abstract way, but on a concrete issue of concern to their families: receiving relief they need in this tough economy to put food on the table and provide for their families.

But progressives can only win on these kind of issues if they are consistent. It won't work to be silent about protecting consumers from credit industry greed one moment and then claim to champion debt-struggling families the next.

3) It speaks to the lessons of history: History rarely repeats itself, and trying to draw neat lessons from the past is a tricky and dangerous exercise. But one of the most interesting chapters in Southern history is the way Roosevelt -- widely decried in the media as a fierce liberal, however cautious he was in practice -- was able to win over Southerners to New Deal politics.

How did he do it? By an almost myopic focus on the economy (often, critics point out, to the exclusion of issues like civil rights).

Reformers inside the New Deal pushed to ensure industrial and agricultural relief programs benefit a broad swath of Southerners. Projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority, hatched in 1933, were guided by a broad social mission of social uplift for struggling Appalachian communities.

FDR had to be pushed from the outside, sometimes hard, as the insurgencies of textile workers in the famous Uprising of '34 and the multi-racial Southern Tenant Farmers Union proved. But Roosevelt came to see how a progressive economic agenda could change the South. By 1938, FDR's advisers were releasing a major report on economic conditions in the South to help rally political support for the New Deal agenda in the region.

Obama and the Democrats have no silver bullet for winning over white Southerners. But there's a sure-fire way they can make the situation worse: ignoring the South's history of economic populism and the very real economic pain millions of Southerners face today.