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Obama Won. Now It's Time to Change the System | The Nation

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Obama Won. Now It's Time to Change the System

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President Barack Obama speaks during an election night party, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Despite President Obama’s important, even landmark, accomplishments, by the time November 6 arrived, many Americans were disappointed with his first term. They expected him to be a “transformational” president who would somehow, single-handedly, change Washington’s political culture. When their hopes were dashed, they blamed Obama rather than the corporate plutocrats’ stranglehold on Congress—especially (but not only) on the Republicans, who acted like sock puppets for the Chamber of Commerce, opposing every proposal to tax the wealthy and regulate corporations as a “job killer,” and insisting that their top priority was to make Obama a one-term president.

About the Author

Donald Cohen
Donald Cohen is executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a San Diego-based research and policy center.
Peter Dreier
Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His...

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Given the power of the Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street banks, the insurance industry, the oil lobby and the drug companies, it’s remarkable that Obama managed to enact the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank legislation, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and tough new standards on fuel efficiency and electric plant emissions. Voters rewarded Obama with a second term and defeated many business-backed candidates and ballot measures, like California’s anti-union Proposition 32.

But the major contours of American politics remain intact. The nation’s extreme concentration of wealth still gives businesses and billionaires outsize political influence. Corporate campaign contributions and lobbyists tilt the political playing field so much that ordinary citizens often feel their votes and voices don’t count. The United States ranks number one in low voter turnout: even in this year’s hotly contested elections, fewer than 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Paradoxically (but understandably), the people least likely to vote—the poor, the jobless, the young—are those who need government the most, and who, if they did vote, would tend to favor liberals and Democrats. 

With re-election safely behind him, we hope Obama will be bolder in his second term. He should diversify his inner circle of economic advisers and cabinet appointees to include more progressive voices, not just those who reflect business and banking. He should use his bully pulpit to focus public attention on the disproportionate influence of the Chamber and other corporate lobbying groups. He should be willing to deflect their attacks, as FDR did when he said, “I welcome their hatred,” referring to the forces of “organized money.” We’d like to see more of the Barack Obama who showed up on December 6, 2011, at a high school in Osawatomie, Kansas, echoing the themes of the then– burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement.  

As he did during his 2008 campaign (but stopped doing once he took office), Obama should encourage the organizers and activists who are challenging corporate power, recognizing that their ability to agitate and mobilize ordinary Americans can help him be a more effective president. LBJ understood this inside-outside dynamic when he embraced the civil rights movement—adopting its “We shall overcome” motto in a 1965 speech to Congress—and took on the segregationists in his own party.

Americans would respond positively. In fact, a majority actually have liberal or progressive views. They think corporate money plays too big a role in our political system, the very rich pay too little in taxes, and the government should help with student loans, act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and protect consumers and workers. They believe Congress should raise the minimum wage and that Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment insurance and food stamps are needed to protect people from economic hardship and insecurity. 

But however skilled Obama is as a politician—and despite the many principled progressives in Congress—we cannot expect to enact more than modest reforms until we tame the power of the corporate plutocrats. Ultimately, we need to change the system that ensnares even the most progressive politicians in its web.

Specifically, we need three kinds of structural “mobilizing” reforms that will dramatically level the political playing field, weakening the power of the corporate plutocracy and strengthening the voices of ordinary Americans:

§ Campaign finance reform. America must eliminate the corrosive impact of money in politics. But until a more liberal Supreme Court reverses the conservative rulings that consider corporate money a form of “free speech” (such as Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United), we need stepping-stone reforms that start to address this power imbalance.

Pending legislation called the Fair Elections Now Act would provide public funding to candidates who get support from large numbers of small donors instead of wealthy contributors, bundlers and lobbyists. The act’s lead sponsors in the House are Representatives John Larson, Walter Jones and Chellie Pingree; in the Senate it’s majority whip Dick Durbin.   

A number of states have passed “clean election” laws to reduce the influence of private cash in favor of public funding, but courts have struck several of these down. In New York State, reform activists and Governor Andrew Cuomo are backing a public financing bill modeled after a successful law in New York City.

§ Voting reform. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman John Lewis are sponsoring the Voter Empowerment Act, which would make voter registration easier, thus increasing voter turnout. It would make election day registration the law of the land. According to Demos, a nonpartisan think tank, election day registration currently exists in nine states, and voter turnout in these states has historically exceeded the turnout elsewhere by 10 to 12 percentage points. We should also turn election day into a national holiday and require accessible early voting in every state. No one should have to wait several hours to cast his or her vote.

§ Labor law reform. Throughout the last century, unions have been the most powerful vehicles for challenging corporate power. Organized labor was the primary force responsible for giving us Social Security, the minimum wage, the eight-hour day, unemployment insurance, workplace safety laws and funding for public education.  

Today, however, only 11.8 percent of the workforce is unionized, even though more than half of all nonmanagement employees tell pollsters that they would like a union in their workplace. Many employers violate the law by firing or demoting workers who show support for union organizing drives. These employers get away with it because the penalties are too trivial to deter them. We need to update the labor laws and give workers a voice by setting real, deterrent-size penalties and enforceable remedies against employers who violate their workers’ right to organize. 

* * *

We can’t simply wait for these game-changing structural reforms to happen. In Obama’s second term, activists need to be bolder and more audacious, like the suffragists, strikers and civil rights crusaders before them. A central task for progressives is to expose the agenda of billionaires and plutocrats. We must name names and call out the business moguls whose overlapping memberships on corporate boards, lobbying groups and conservative think tanks make them a ruling class over the rest of us. Only visible, consistent action will create the political space—and pressure—for President Obama and Congress to act on behalf of the majority of Americans. 

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This strategy worked in Obama’s first term. His healthcare proposal seemed likely to fail until activists began organizing protests at insurance companies and at the homes of industry CEOs, drawing attention to their outrageous profits and compensation, and giving voice to the victims of the industry’s abusive practices. The protests catalyzed media coverage, strengthened Obama’s resolve and pushed reluctant Democrats to vote for reform. 

Activists must use protests, civil disobedience, boycotts, lawsuits and other strategies to pressure Congress to act on such urgent issues as foreclosures, underwater home prices, student debt, taxes, the fiscal crisis of states and cities, and raising the minimum wage. Each of these issues has broad support, workable policy solutions and burgeoning movements behind them.

As Frederick Douglass once said, without struggle there is no progress. But the efforts of issue-oriented movements would be far easier and far more effective if we could “change the system” that puts so many hurdles in the way of making our country a healthier democracy.

In last week’s issue, Norman Solomon described “How to Build a Grassroots Power Base.”

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