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Robert ReichBack to OpinionRobert Reich

Why we may be in store for a passionless presidential race

Polls show Americans angrier and more polarized than at any time since the Vietnam War. That’s not surprising. We have the worst economy since the Great Recession and the worst politics in living memory. The rise of the regressive right over the last three decades has finally spurred a progressive reaction. Occupiers and others have had enough.

Yet paradoxically the presidential race that officially begins a few months from now is likely to be as passionless as they come.

President Obama will be supported by progressives and the Democratic base, but without enthusiasm. His notorious caves to Republicans and Wall Street — failing to put conditions on the Street’s bailout (such as demanding the Street help stranded home owners), or to resurrect Glass-Steagall, or include a public option in health care, or assert his constitutional responsibility to raise the debt limit, or protect Medicare and Social Security, or push for cap-and-trade, or close Guantanamo, or, in general, confront the regressive Republican nay-sayers and do-nothings with toughness rather than begin negotiations by giving them much of what they want — are not the stuff that stirs a passionate following.

Mitt Romney will surely be the Republican presidential candidate — and Romney inspires as little enthusiasm among Republicans as Obama does among Democrats. The GOP will support Romney because, frankly, he’s the only major Republican primary candidate who does not appear to the broader public to be nuts.

But Republicans don’t like Romney. His glib, self-serving, say-whatever-it-takes-to-win-the primaries approach strikes almost everyone as contrived and cynical. Moreover, Romney is the establishment personified — a pump-and-dump takeover financier, for crying out loud — at the very time the GOP (and much of the rest of the country) are becoming more anti-establishment by the day.

At this point neither the Republican right nor the mainstream media wants to admit the yawn-inducing truth that Mitt will be the GOP’s candidate.The right doesn’t want to admit it because it will be seen as a repudiation of the Tea Party. The media doesn’t want to because they’d prefer to sell newspapers and attract eyeballs.

The media are keeping the story of Rick Perry’s cringe-inducing implosion going for the same reason they’re keeping the story of Herman Cain’s equally painful decline going — because the public is forever fascinated by the gruesome sight of dying candidacies. With Bachmann, Perry, and Cain gone or disintegrating, the right wing-nuts of the GOP have only one hope left: Newt Gingrich. His star will rise briefly before he, too, is pilloried for the bizarre things he’s uttered in the past and for his equally bizarre private life. His fall will be equally sudden (although I don’t think Gingrich is capable of embarrassment).

And so we’ll be left with two presidential candidates who don’t inspire — at the very time in American history when Americans crave inspiration.

Instead of a big debate about the basics (how to truly restore jobs and wages, financial capitalism versus product capitalism, the place and role of America in the world, how to rescue our democracy), we’re likely to have a superficial debate over symbols (the budget deficit, the size of government, whether we need a “businessman” at the helm).

This means political passions are likely to move elsewhere — finding their voices in grass-roots movements, social media, demonstrations, boycotts, and meet-ups—on the Main Streets and in the backwaters, and only episodically in the mainstream media or in normal election-year events.

In some ways this may not be such a bad thing. The regressive right has had thirty years to build itself into a political power. Newly-energized progressives (Occupiers and others) need enough time to develop concrete proposals and strategies. What’s the rush? If polls are to be believed, most of the nation is progressive, not regressive (witness last Tuesday’s results in Wisconsin and elsewhere). So it is, after all, only a matter of time.

Yet viewed another way, a passionless presidential race may be dangerous for America. The nation’s problems may not wait. They require bold action, and soon.

Published by arrangement with

Robert Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written 11 books (including his most recent, “Supercapitalism,” which is now out in paperback).



  • T4TX

    Maybe if they changed their party’s mascots to “Gumby” & “Pokey”?

  • Big Bear

    it’s not a democracy we have.  it’s a democratic republic.  there is a difference and it’s an important one.

  • Anonymous

    Neither party can do exactly what they want to do. Maybe, that’s a good thing.

  • Joseph_dorsett

    I’m discussed with our entire federal govt.

  • CameachamIam

    That is your response to the article? To point out the difference between a democracy and a democratic republic? Useless.

  • Moira

    When will anyone ever mention Ron Paul?  There’s other people running in this election; the only reason those idiots seem to be such huge contenders is because they get the most mentions (good and bad….often times bad, however).  I’m getting annoyed.

  • Jf03cg

    As an outsider, I keep asking myself “What about a third party?” I’ve always been fascinated
    with the “two-party” system in the US. Many other democracies around
    the world have multiple political parties (here in Canada we have three national
    parties, the UK has three parties of note, etc…). Having a third option is
    good when two “major” options are uninspiring. Just an observation.
    Cheers ;)

  • Nyx

    I’m voting for Ron Paul, I think he’s the only one who is running that
    can possibly save our sinking ship.  The others will do nothing more,
    nothing less and nothing better than previous presidents.  As far as
    this article goes, no facts, all opinion = lame.

  • jstnsnty

    Um hello?!?! Ron Paul!

  • Amy M.

    I think Gingrich is underestimated.  He’s been gradually moving up in the polls for weeks because he consistently brings his A game to the debates.  I’m not sure I like him, but he’s certainly a valid candidate and not one people should brush off so easily.

  • BlueGirlRedState

    Reich I am soooooooooooo disappointed in you.  We are just holding our breath until this ridiculous spectacle (the GOP campaign) is over so we can nail their blankety-blank coffin shut for once and for all.  Obama is the ONLY viable choice.  The rest of this nonsense is just a sideshow. 

  • Ang

    Did you notice the header, in bold, at the top of the article?  It reads, “OPINION.”  Illiteracy is a big problem in America.

  • Ertough

    Media outlets including articles such as this are to blame over the exclusion of the most viable candidate (Ron Paul) and the only one talking about “basic” issues. I am astonished that an article associated with PBS would ignore something so obvious to promote an idea in an article.

  • Joyannjohnson

    I am so sorry…but I don’t necessarily want passion and drama. I want a committed president who delivers (as best he can) on what he promised. Obama to the best of his ability has done that in the face of bitter intransigence on the part of the opposition party. I’m not behaving passionately now because I don’t want to waste my energy with a republican race where the only candidate I see as valid (Jon Huntsman) doesn’t merit a passing glance from his party or the media.

  • Moira

    I agree.

  • John Ross

    The question is, can our American democracy aleviate the extreme class divisions that have recently gotten so much worse growing millions of citizens are suffering desperate poverty. Not when Congress awards itself the legal right to insider trading. Not when bankers racketeer and go unpunished. Not when U.S. corporations commit economic treason by exporting American factories anywhere for low wage labor. So, is there a third party with the dedication to democracy that is ready to launch a presidential campaign? Apparently not.

  • Ray Gilbert Johns

    @Robert Reich, “political passions are likely to move elsewhere — finding their
    voices in grass-roots movements, social media, demonstrations, boycotts,
    and meet-ups—on the Main Streets and in the backwaters, and only
    episodically in the mainstream media or in normal election-year events.
    In some ways this may not be such a bad thing.”  This phenomenon is a natural outcome of the divided government system we have; passion and prejudice was necessarily pushed to the peripheral public spaces. These grassroots direct democracy movements are important for drawing our government representatives to issues that need focus and debate like US  foreign military intervention,  climate change, fiscal responsibility, the limits of product/financial capitalism ‘growth’, and redistributive justice. President Obama’s ‘timidity’ and ‘compromising’ faults are typical of a young President; Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy stand as similar examples. VP Biden as the elder statesman on the Obama election ticket should step up and help President Obama take  a more forceful , passionate position on the need for a new energy strategy, conservation and no growth steady-state economic development that recognizes the limits of our power in a greater interdependent resource-scarce Earth.

  • Ozzie1313

    I agree regarding your observations of Huntsman.  But I disagree concerning your representation of Obama.  I have voted Democrat all my life, worked for Hilary’s campaign, and “wasted” a vote on Nader versus vote for Obama.  Obama sold himself through eliciting a passionate response from voters.  I saw his “yes we can” mantra as a ploy, and it has certainly played out that way.  Obama is not a reprobrate, but is disingenuous.  You are in the minority in defending his lackluster leadership. 

  • demand_sider

    You belong on Fox’s site with that spelling.

  • demand_sider

    Well, at least you admitted to the “democratic” part, or I’d have to go on, and on, about ancient Rome.

  • demand_sider

    Obama reminds me of my old rubber Pokey doll. The wire spine broke  and I lost interest in it.

  • Mayor McCheese

    Seems like America’s ripe for some new political parties. It wouldn’t take much to lure me away from the Democrats at this point.