Change Won't Come Easy
President Obama hailed the healthcare reform bill coming out of the Senate as the "most important piece of social legislation since the Social Security Act passed in the 1930s." Former Democratic Party chair Howard Dean denounced it as a "giveaway to insurance companies."
Larry Summers, Obama's lead economic adviser, described the $780 billion recovery plan as the largest stimulus plan in the country's history. Economists like Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz warned from the beginning that it was too small to lift us out of the Great Recession.
The president described the administration's financial reform package as a "sweeping overhaul," a "transformation on a scale not seen since...the Great Depression." Former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker warned that the proposed "safety net" for big banks would encourage much greater "risk taking."
Congressman Ed Markey, chair of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence, hailed the energy bill that was passed by the House as "the most important energy and environmental bill in our nation's history." Environmental leaders were underwhelmed; some considered it worse than the current law.
The discordant reality of these times is that these conflicting statements are all essentially true. "I want you to be ready," Bill Clinton warned bloggers about healthcare reform at the Netroots Conference in August, to "accept less than a full loaf." He could easily have been talking about the Obama presidency itself. Progressives must determine how to respond now that the fierce resistance to change has revealed itself.
The euphoria of a year ago is dissipating. Then, in the wake of a calamitous and discredited conservative government, Americans voted for change, electing a stunningly gifted leader and large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. A mobilized activist base appeared ready to throw itself into the fray, and an emerging majority coalition suggested the potential for a long-term realignment.
Now the struggles of the first year of the Obama administration are generating increasing demoralization and anger. Disappointment about reforms in motion--healthcare, jobs, climate change--marks those who care the most. The recovery plan, which has revived Wall Street but not working families, is fueling dangerous right-wing populism. Substituting an unwinnable "good war" in Afghanistan for the unwinnable "bad war" in Iraq, along with a military budget exceeding that of George W. Bush, is a recipe for failure. The administration's foreign policy--despite the promise in Cairo of engaging the Muslim world and in Prague of embracing disarmament--is increasingly described by neocons as providing more continuity than change from the Bush years. Democrats cringe at prospects for the fall elections. Despite all the obvious eloquence and intelligence of the new president, many wonder what happened to the transformational presidency.
It Ain't Easy; Everything's Broken
Turns out, Obama is not the Messiah, and those who thought so were always fooling themselves. The disappointments of Obama's first year are less the product of his failures than of the balance of forces he faces in Washington and in the country. Many progressives thought we had taken back America with the election of 2008, but in reality the work had only just begun.
In fact, the president has been bolder than many expected, summoning the country to address fundamental challenges it can no longer afford to ignore. Yet the ambition of Obama's vision has been accompanied by a marked caution in conception and execution. Obama clearly aspires to a historic presidency, one that defines a new era as FDR's or Reagan's did. But he has never been a movement progressive the way Reagan was a movement conservative. He has surrounded himself with the brightest and best of the Democratic establishment, drawn inevitably from those marinated in the Clinton years. Many of his leading advisers--from Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner to Robert Gates--were directly implicated in the decisions that helped to drive us off the cliff. These voices are not advocates of transformation.
So the reform proposals that emerge from the administration often fall short not only of the hopes of progressives but of the objectives the president himself defines and the change the country needs. Obama outlined a new foundation for the economy in his "Sermon on the Mount," but the big banks were rescued, not reorganized, and no industrial policy accompanied the commitment to a new economy. Bankers were chastised for their bonuses, but there was no drive to hold executives accountable and empower workers, both central to an economy that sustains a broad middle class. The president shelved Bush's failed cowboy bellicosity, but the decision to escalate in Afghanistan accedes to the Bush folly of waging war against terrorism rather than intensifying global law enforcement.
Most surprising has been the reluctance to engage the right boldly in the war of ideas. Reagan consolidated the conservative era in part by bludgeoning reigning liberalism with a relentless conservative critique. He tacked and retreated on policy when necessary, but his ideological assault never faltered. Obama has a rare ability to frame the contrast with the right, to counter its market fundamentalism and virulent nihilism with a compelling statement of our shared values, with government as the necessary instrument of our common purpose.
But for much of the year, Democrats have been having policy debates--on the public option, on cap and trade, on systemic risk regulation--while Republicans and the resurgent right have been waging an argument about values and ideas, on liberty and free markets, freedom and small government. Although the administration has reminded Americans of the catastrophic legacy left by the Bush years, it has seldom indicted the conservative ideas that were the source of the calamity. Instead the president prefers to blame the process--"partisanship...politics...ever quickening news cycles...endless campaigns focused on scoring points instead of meeting our common challenges."
That default complements an insider Congressional strategy that prefers backroom compromise to public mobilization. This president enunciates the elements of his reform proposals and then lets Congress and his aides to do their work offstage. But that cedes the terrain to the legions of the old order that are mobilized to fend off real reform.
The past months have exposed the elements of that resistance--the cynical Republican strategy of lockstep obstruction, the Senate rules that empower a handful of small-state conservatives and the embittered Joe Lieberman. (It is worth remembering that there were majorities in both houses of Congress for a bolder stimulus and far better healthcare reform.)
And of course, at the heart of the opposition are the entrenched corporate complexes that feed off public subsidies and a corrupt Congress. These have been boom times for Democratic lobbyists and former officeholders. The commercial banks deployed nearly 417 registered lobbyists in 2009. The insurance and drug lobbies spent about $1.4 million a day, with 350 former legislators and staffers lined up to weaken healthcare reform. Legislators in both parties succumbed to the pervasive corruptions of our money politics.
The result is that even when historic reforms like healthcare emerge, they are so battered that supporters end up dispirited. Democrats face going into the 2010 midterm elections with double-digit unemployment, rescued bankers awarding themselves million-dollar bonuses, rising casualties in Afghanistan, the right mobilized and progressive activists dismayed. If Republicans score major victories in the election, that will make everything harder; the administration will become more cautious, not less. Clearly, if we are not to squander the best opportunity for progressive reform in thirty years, something will have to change.