Progressive opinions on Barack Obama’s first term are as conflicted as his record. These differences are a sign of a diverse and spirited left, and we welcome continued debate in our pages about the president’s record and policies. But that discussion should not obscure what is at stake in this election. A victory for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in November would validate the reactionary extremists who have captured the Republican Party. It would represent the triumph of social Darwinism, the religious right, corporate power and the big money donors who thrive in a new Gilded Age of inequality. It would strike a devastating blow to progressive values and movements, locking us in rear-guard actions on a range of issues—from the rights of women, minorities, immigrants and LGBT people to the preservation of social insurance programs and a progressive tax structure. Inside the Democratic Party, Obama’s defeat would embolden the Blue Dogs and New Dems, who have greased the party’s slide to the right. Whatever disappointments we have with Obama’s first term—and there are many—progressives have a profound interest in the popular rejection of the Romney/Ryan ticket.
It’s true that many issues of fundamental importance have been absent from this election—from catastrophic climate change and staggering rates of poverty to the militarization of foreign policy and the continued growth of the national security state. Their omission has been enabled to a degree by the Republican Party’s rightward lurch, as well as the Romney team’s recurring gaffes and its naked hostility to vast sectors of the American electorate. As a result, the president has been successful, so far, in running a campaign that appeals to key progressive constituencies (women, Latinos, LGBT people) but without the broad call for change that distinguished his 2008 election.
As such, we have no illusions about the audacity of hope, no faith that the re-election of President Obama alone will accomplish the radical change this magazine has championed. For America to be on a different path in 2016 from that of 2012, progressive movements will have to “occupy” all the levers of power—in Washington, in the states and in the streets. Most immediately, that means strengthening the progressive coalition in Congress that includes Senators Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders, who are up for re-election, and adding crusaders like Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren to the mix. More important, progressive movements can’t be lulled into complacency once the election is over and expect elected officials to make change from above.
Indeed, a look back at the past four years shows how activists were able to expand the limits of possibility by seizing the opening presented by the historic 2008 election and pushing for the change they believed in. Gays and lesbians, for example, were peripheral to Obama’s coalition in 2008. But the moment the new administration took hold, LGBT activists cajoled, educated, applied pressure from the inside and protested from the outside, creating the conditions for Obama’s “evolution” on same-sex marriage. Today, they are core players in his re-election bid, and their inclusion is a powerful symbol of the differences between Republicans and Democrats on social issues.
Or consider the long and ongoing struggle for immigrant rights, which earned its greatest victory only after its grassroots leaders saw “la promesa de Obama” broken, as the man who had offered relief from the terror of mass deportations presided instead over a systematic intensification of misery and fear for undocumented immigrants. But the dreamers still dreamed, and demanded, and even as Senate Republicans blocked passage of the Dream Act— let alone comprehensive immigration reform—the dreamers succeeded in persuading the White House that a political directive halting deportations of young, undocumented immigrants was both good policy and good politics.
This same push-and-pull has been essential to other progressive victories, large and small, of the past four years. Famously, the first bill Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, but feminists didn’t fold up their tents on January 29, 2009. They organized, especially on social media, and made sure the president included contraceptive coverage in the implementation of the healthcare reform law and stood with Planned Parenthood when it came under an unhinged, antediluvian assault from the right. Environmentalists rightly despaired as a new breed of science-denying Republicans beat the president into passivity on the issue of climate change, but they didn’t quit. They got militant, circling the White House and enduring mass arrests, forcing the administration to postpone construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.