Fairness has become an important theme in contemporary politics and not just because the electorate - especially the Baby Boomers - are fond of complaining that "it's not fair". It doesn't matter much what that something is or where the complaining is being done: fairness, or the perception of fairness is a thread connecting Washington to Paris via London.
Here, the coalition's welfare reforms are analysed in terms of their "fairness"; in France, protestors complain that pension reforms aren't "fair" while in the United States there's a widespread sense that the game is "unfairly" rigged against the common man. Each case is different but in each there's a palpable sense that the public think it is being asked to make sacrifices to pay for other people's mistakes.
Which is kind of true. The rutted state of the American economy may be the primary cause of woe for Democrats tonight but it's not the only one (see Ross for more on this). Their own choices played a part in creating this defeat too and so, of course, did the Congressional leadership and the White House. (Rule of thumb: the more often Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are on TV, the tougher it's going to be.)
Selling the line that "If we hadn't taken Measures A, B and C everything might have been even worse" is hard. Even if you are right, the public won't be likely to thank you for it because everything is always better somewhere along the imaginary road neither they nor you chose to take. So TARP and the auto bail-out and the stimulus package are judged on their meagre (though not necessarily disastrous) returns, not on what they may have helped prevent. (Nor does it matter that a Republican president began TARP and the bail-outs or that McCain would have probably completed them.)
In each of these cases, the Average Joe could see huge corporations benefitting from government largesse. No wonder he 's tempted to ask what's being done to help him and his family pay for college, get cheaper health care, expand his business or, all too frequently, get a job. And if the corporations are doing well then K Street is doing well which means Washington is doing well. And that ain't fair either. What was that you said about fixing Washington?
Tough times mean unhappy people which in turn is always taken to mean that the government - and in this instance the White House - has a communications problem. Well, yeah. Fix the cause of the unhappiness and the comms problem will take care of itself - no-one is unhappy because the White House has a communications problem. Still, when the economy is ailing, it can't hurt to be in peak form in other areas.
That being so - and acknowledging the structural realities that don't help Democrats this year - it's still true that the White House has not always been as attuned to the public mood as it might be. "Trust us, we know what we're doing" probably wasn't a wise message in times such as these. Still, if it were just about stories and narratives neither Reagan nor Clinton would have run into trouble. And for all his aloofness or introversion or whatever Obama's approval rating, while damaged, remains, on balance, healthier than you might expect.
Nevertheless, there's been a problem with managing expectations. Obama brought much of this on himself. Remember this?
I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people. Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.
This was a great legislative victory and (who knows!) it may eventually be seen as a great policy triumph too. But it wasn't a great political triumph. At least not in the context of this year's elections. It took a year and ensured that the White House and Congress was wrangling over something that won't even come into force until after the next Presidential election. This at a time of rising uncertainty and economic insecurity. Rightly or not, the fate of the uninsured (and the under-insiured) didn't seem as pressing a concern to people with health insurance worried about losing their jobs. (That said: once begun it had to be seen through and, hell, you're elected to do stuff so you might as well push for a liberal landmark. Just don't complain if people don't like it.)
And adding health care - a definite expansion of government - to the pile while at the same time bailing out GM and Chrysler and the stimulus and Financial Regulation reforms that, fairly or not, could be criticised as "soft on Wall Street" (if, again, perhaps necessarily so) - well, it all adds up, doesn't it? At the very least it gave even this sorry Republican party an easy story to tell.
Not everything in that story is nonsense either. I think that, deep down, Obama is a much more orthodox liberal than many people think or hoped he might be. He's not especially doctrinaire and his instincts tend towards pragmatism but the striking thing, I think, is that two years into his Presidency many Americans still don't quite know what to think of their Commander-in-Chief. I suspect that many would like to like him more than they do.
So, yes, the economy matters hugely but no it's not everything. Yes, the GOP will win big tonight (but not perhaps as big as it thinks it will) but no that doesn't mean Obama's a lame-duck President or anything of the sort. But, clearly, he needs a real economic recovery and, perhaps, a fresh start and a White House team that stops giving the impression that they are a bunch of martyrs whom the country is lucky to have in charge and that it is all so very unfair that they aren't being given the credit they deserve. This is politics; fair don't come into it.