How can community activist President Obama continually underestimate the Tea Party? Mr. Obama celebrated his ability to clean up asbestos from public housing as a young organizer; why is he blind to the growing power of Tea Party activists who are trying to clean up our country’s balance sheet?
In the recent debate on raising the debt ceiling, the president completely dismissed the influence of the Tea Party. He ignored the pledge signed by some 236 House Republicans and 41 GOP senators sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform – an organization sympathetic to the Tea Party -- vowing to not raise taxes or to sanction tax reforms that would result in higher revenues. The president continued to grandstand about a “balanced approach” that would include higher taxes even as he and his improbable proposals were ultimately relegated to the sidelines.
One thing is clear: the Tea Party won the debt ceiling skirmish and changed the nation’s discourse. The movement shifted the country’s focus to cutting spending and restoring our country’s fiscal health – a stunning volte face for our indulgent body politic. You have to wonder, when will Mr. Obama take the Tea Party seriously?
The tea leaves have not been hard to read. Consider: the most earth-shaking election in years vaulted Scott Brown into “Ted Kennedy’s” senate seat, representing a state so blue that Pantone could adopt it for color-coding. Under the heading “GOP Victory Stuns Democrats” the New York Times wrote, “the election of a man supported by the Tea Party movement also represented an unexpected reproach by many voters to President Obama after his first year in office, and struck fear into the hearts of Democratic lawmakers, who are already worried about their prospects in the midterm elections later this year.”
Fast forward to those midterm elections, when the GOP picked up 6 senate seats, 63 House seats and 5 governorships. It was, by any definition, a landslide – and a massive repudiation of President Obama’s first *two* years in office. It was also heavily influenced by the Tea Party.
The president has been slow to catch onto the Tea Party tsunami. It may be that his friends in what Sarah Palin calls the “lamestream” media have helped his “willful disbelief.” Since February 19, 2009, when CNBC’s Rick Santelli issued his now-famous rant on nationwide TV against Obama’s big spending programs and encouraged others to turn out for a Chicago tea party, the networks have underplayed the rising movement.
In all of 2009, as the Tea Party spawned thousands of gatherings across the country protesting ballooning government outlays and ObamaCare, network TV ran just 19 stories or segments about the new group, according to a study by the Media Research Center. Imagine. A new political movement gains stride, and steals a Massachusetts senate seat, and is virtually ignored by network TV.
When the media did finally happen upon this new political tide, it derided its backers as thugs and racists. MSNBC’s Keith Olberman described Tea Partiers as “a bunch of guys who are just looking for a reason to yell at a black president.” The networks were more restrained, but also dismissive. ABC’s Diane Sawyer, to pick one, described the protesters who had turned out on tax day as “roaming Washington…yelling slurs and epithets.”
President Obama adopted this narrative, perhaps blinding himself to the political threat the movement contained. In April 2009, asked about the thousands of protests taking place on tax day around the nation, White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said “I don’t know if the president is aware of the events.” Soon thereafter, White House advisor David Axelrod explained the demonstrations saying “I think any time you have severe economic conditions there is always an element of disaffection that can mutate into something that’s unhealthy.”
In a September 2010 interview in Rolling Stone magazine, Mr. Obama describes “some aspects of the Tea Party that are a little darker, that have to do with anti-immigrant sentiment or are troubled by what I represent as the president.”
It was finally (and surprisingly) the New York Times that ventured forth to record who was actually turning up at Tea Party rallies. They were shocked (and no doubt dismayed) to find the protesters “wealthier and more educated” than the general public, laying to rest the myth that the movement was spawned by skinheads and wing-nuts.
The surprise is that Mr. Obama and his political colleagues have been so disrespectful of the Tea Party, when it is kissing cousin to the kind of political movement that won him the presidency.
In 2008 thousands of political virgins turned out to work for an idea -- and an ideal-- and raised millions in campaign contributions for Mr. Obama. The fever spread, attracting millions of supporters.
The 2008 presidential campaign showcased the power of the multitude and upended many assumptions about the importance of traditional party outlets. The 2012 campaign may be equally stunning; this time, however, the Tea Party may be in the driver’s seat. The GOP should hope that President Obama remains oblivious to their challenge.