Barack Obama was elected president at a time defined by hope and fear in equal measure. It was a remarkable moment in our country’s history–a milestone in America’s scarred racial landscape and a victory for the forces of decency, diversity and tolerance. For the first time in decades, electoral politics became a vehicle for raising expectations and spreading hope while it mobilized millions of new voters. Obama’s was a campaign built on the power and promise of change from below. At the same time, he was elected as the nation was rapidly sinking into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The night Obama was elected, relief was felt around the world. There was a widespread feeling that the United States had turned its back on eight years of destructive, swaggering unilateralism and was re-embracing the global community. In many ways, the election was a referendum on an extremist conservatism that has guided (and deformed) American politics and society since the 1980s. The spectacular failures of the Bush administration and the shifts in public opinion on the economy and the Iraq War presented a mandate for bold action and a historic opportunity for a progressive governing agenda.
A year later, it’s clear we are a long way from building a new order and reshaping the prevailing paradigm of American politics. That will take more than one election. It requires continued mobilization, strategic creativity and, yes, audacity on the part of independent thinkers, activists and organizers. The structural obstacles to change are considerable. But at least we now have the political space to push for far-reaching reforms.
Whatever one thinks of Obama’s policy on any specific issue, he is clearly a reform president committed to the improvement of people’s lives and to the renewal and reconstruction of America. Yes, his economic recovery plan was too small and too deferential to the Republican Party and tax cuts. But it has kept the economy from falling into the abyss, and it includes more new net public investment in antipoverty measures than any program since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
We need a much more robust jobs program–without one, Americans will not believe this president stands with the working people. Obama would be wise to use his presidential pulpit and brilliant oratorical skills to explain that when one out of six Americans is unemployed or underemployed, our greatest fear should be joblessness, not deficits.
Still, there’s much to be praised. Obama has spoken eloquently of a new and progressive role for government. His first appointment to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, was a strong choice–the first Latina on the Court and a powerful progressive jurist. In selecting Sotomayor, Obama has finally halted the Court’s long drift to the right. The president says the labor movement is the solution, not the problem. (If he really believes this, he should act on it by pushing for speedy passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.) He has reinvigorated the regulatory agencies in Washington, from the EPA to the FCC (in doing so he has, ironically, fueled a full-employment program for K Street lobbyists). He has repealed the global gag rule on abortion, has spoken of the urgency of the climate crisis and has restored integrity to the government’s scientific research programs.
The president’s quartet of major speeches abroad–in Cairo, Prague, Moscow and Accra–began to lay out an Obama Doctrine in international affairs: support for diplomacy and the UN; commitment to a nuclear-free world; a belief that democracy is strengthened not through US intervention but when people win for themselves their rights and liberties; and engagement and cooperation with, rather than antagonism toward, the Muslim world. However, the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned against grows ever stronger. And so far Obama has been unwilling to rethink skewed priorities in this arena; he just approved a bloated military budget despite his rare cancellation of several costly weapons programs.
And then, of course, there is Afghanistan. Historians have warned that wars kill reform presidencies. The most recent, and perhaps most relevant, example is the Vietnam War’s undermining of the Great Society. Obama is wisely taking his time to make a decision about Afghanistan, but he appears to have excluded the one option that makes the most sense–a responsible exit strategy–and seems poised to escalate this unnecessary war. If he does so, he will endanger his reform presidency and squander funds needed to rebuild and renew our country.
Obama could have used the moment of economic crisis to restructure the economy and rein in the financial sector, not simply resuscitate it. The taxpayer-funded bailout of the banks has contributed to a popular backlash. If Obama doesn’t respond to the widespread anguish and anger with constructive support for those in need, the GOP will continue to channel it in destructive directions.
There are other disappointments. I am sure you have your list. At the top of mine is Obama’s failure to end the excesses and abuses associated with the Bush/Cheney national security apparatus; also on it is his unwillingness to push more strongly for a public option on healthcare reform. But instead of playing the betrayal sweepstakes, which promotes disappointment and despair, we’d be smart to practice a progressive politics defined by realistic hope and pragmatism. That is, simply denouncing the administration’s missteps and failures doesn’t get us very far and furthers what our adversaries seek: our disempowerment. We can’t afford that. These are times to avoid falling into either of two extremes: reflexively defensive or reflexively critical.
Remember that throughout our history, it has taken large-scale, sustained organizing to win structural change. There would have been no New Deal without the vast upsurge in union activism and unemployed councils, no civil rights legislation without the mass movement. We need to learn from those inspiring examples and build our own movements. And we need to start playing inside-outside politics too: engage the administration and Congress, even as we push without apology for bolder solutions than the ones Obama has offered.
Progressives should focus less on the limits of the Obama agenda and more on the possibilities that his presidency opens up. Like all presidents, Obama is constrained by powerful opponents and deep structural impediments. Independent organizing and savvy coalition-building will be critical in overcoming the timid incrementalists of his own party and the forces of money and establishment power that are obstacles to change. But if we work effectively, we can push Obama beyond the limits of his own politics and create a new progressive era.