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.
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.