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.