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.
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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.
The president warned that change wouldn’t come easy. From the start, the administration devoted energy and resources to organizing a unified base of activists. Organizing for Obama promised use of an unmatched list of activists and supporters built during the campaign. Donors were tapped to set up new entities–Common Purpose Project, Unity ’09, etc.–to coordinate messages and field operations. Significant resources went to coalitions to help drive healthcare, climate change and immigration reform. The administration’s argument was and is compelling. This is a reform moment with the most liberal president in memory. It is time to unite, provide support for his leadership and help drive reform.
Progressives and grassroots networks across the country rallied to that call. Remarkable work has been done. Broad coalitions were built, arming activists with more capacity and better coordination in the process of lobbying legislators. New constituencies–the faith community, young people and small business owners–have been enlisted. Resources were devoted to conservative districts and states where key swing votes had to be won.
These efforts have propelled the president’s key reforms. When tea-baggers threatened to torpedo healthcare reform, progressives–led by Health Care for America Now, unions and MoveOn–mobilized and soon overwhelmed them in town hall meetings.
But there were costs associated with channeling progressive energy through the administration. Obama aides, led by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, argued fiercely against going after the Democrats–Blue Dogs and New Dems–who were impeding reform, and the White House chose not to mobilize its base to pressure them. Groups were often blindsided by backroom deals like the one with the drug companies that sustained the ban on negotiating lower drug prices.
One unintended consequence was that populist anger has been channeled by the right, not the left. Tea-baggers, well funded by established interests, turned rage against those trying to dig out of the hole rather than those who got us into it. Their voice was inchoate, but at the core was a fury at Big Government, Big Banks and Big Business, which were taking their jobs, pocketing public subsidies and helping “those people” while raising their taxes. On the left, there has been no movement comparable to the labor and socialist demonstrations in the ’30s or the civil rights movement in the ’60s that forced the pace of change.
Moving Forward: Ideas Matter
Cynicism is the cheap coin of politics. The left blogosphere is rife with the complaints of the disillusioned (denouncing politicians as crooks, the government as corrupt and Obama as compromised) and threats to give up and stay home. That would be a profound mistake. This country is enmeshed in a fierce debate about its future. Can we summon up the will and the majorities needed to meet the critical challenges we face? Or will we continue our decline, ceding ground to the entrenched corporate cronyism that profits from conservative misrule?
Winning this debate requires new thinking as well as independent organizing. Progressives should be moving outside the Beltway, working to organize protest movements for social justice and giving voice to the displaced and the unemployed. We should be helping to chart a new course while exposing the false idols and powerful interests that stand in the way.
And we should be directly joining the argument with the resurgent right. One basic lesson must be repeated and elaborated upon: the mess that we are in results not from inaction or partisan stalemate but from the failure of conservative policies and ideas in action. Only by coming together to demand an accountable democratic government on our side, free from the special interests that feed off it, can we build a stronger, more just and more vibrant America.
A renewed focus on building protest movements can bolster, not weaken, reform efforts. National debates over fundamental reforms will provide the grist for such organizing. In 2010, assuming healthcare finally passes, the legislative agenda will turn to jobs and financial accountability, two issues that are vital to building the new economy. Politically, the fall elections will likely depend on which candidates and which party can convince skeptical voters that they are on the side of working people and for curbing Wall Street’s excesses.
Here progressive organizing and protests that challenge the limits of the current debate are essential. On jobs, the fundamental questions are whether a commitment will be made of sufficient scale to meet the deepening jobs crisis and whether that initiative will be sufficiently targeted to impact those areas most devastated. Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats are already declaiming against any new program. The administration, badgered about deficits and believing the economy is on the road to recovery, is likely to support a face-lift when reconstructive surgery is needed.
The stakes here couldn’t be higher. If Democrats don’t deliver on jobs, the economy won’t recover, and the 2010 election may well snuff out any chance for reforms. At the very least, they have to show Americans that they’re fighting for jobs. Independent organizing that gives voice to the unemployed, already begun by labor unions and civil rights groups, is essential. The House Progressive Caucus can play a major role in raising the bar and forcing the issue.
Similarly, the debate on financial reform should provide the context for progressive protest organizing. The White House plans to pick a fight with the banking lobby over the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which would create an independent cop to police banks and protect consumers from financial frauds and abuses. In the House, Republicans voted with the banks against reform. In contrast, progressives are pushing sweeping reforms that go to the heart of the financial excesses of the past years–auditing the Federal Reserve; breaking up the big banks; taxing windfall profits, excess bonuses and speculation; outlawing exotic instruments; and limiting usurious interest rates.
Independent organizing can tap into a wellspring of public fury. Muckraking is needed to detail and broadcast the systemic frauds and corruptions. Creative demonstrations can embarrass the bank lobby and the legislators on the take. It is only if the big banks’ money becomes toxic that there is any hope of gaining the reforms needed to curb their power. Here is where the creativity and energy of the Obama activists, many frustrated by the timidity of Organizing for America, can find expression.
Pundits predict that the other issues on the president’s agenda–climate change, immigration reform, employee free choice–will have a difficult time getting a hearing before the 2010 elections. Progressives will have to push hard to ensure that these reforms–vital to both the new economy and to consolidating the emerging progressive majority–are not shunted to the side.
Because of the botched terrorist attempt to bomb a plane on Christmas Day, the administration enters the year on the defensive on terrorism. The furor will add to bipartisan support for an enlarged military budget and for military escalation in Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere. The president will sound more bellicose notes on terrorism. The opposition to escalation in Afghanistan, which probably still enjoys majority support among Democrats in the House, will have to redouble its work, educating Americans about the costs and the stakes and offering common-sense alternative strategies to meet the threat of terrorism.
Challenge Those Who Stand in the Way
Democratic prospects look grim for the fall elections. In low-turnout midterm elections, the passion of base supporters plays a large role. Clearly, the right will be mobilized. Progressives will have to confound the widespread expectation that they will not match the right’s fervor.
The elections will turn into a national referendum on the country’s direction. Will Americans punish those pushing for reform, or those standing in the way? The clear focus must be to make certain that Republicans pay for their irresponsible strategy of obstruction. Here the GOP’s opposition to creating jobs and curbing banks should provide a clear picture of what side they are on.
But this cannot be a purely partisan effort. Democrats who have consistently opposed or weakened vital reforms should not get a free pass. Progressives should be organizing primary challenges against the most egregious Blue Dogs–exemplified by Representative Melissa Bean, who gilded her campaign war chest by leading the banks’ lobby efforts to weaken financial reform. It would be best to do this in districts or states where Democrats are strong, so the seats are not lost; but that may not be possible. Organizing formidable challenges in a couple of districts will send an important message.
The Audacity of Hope
As Frederick Douglass taught, “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.” Digging out of the hole that conservatives left Americans in can’t be done overnight. The president has called on the country to face daunting challenges. Every step of reform is contested by powerful interests. Ruinous policies–such as our commitment to policing the world–have broad bipartisan support. Yet we haven’t had this kind of moment since the 1960s. With persistence, work, rededication and struggle, we can issue the demands that change requires. This is a time for neither the innocent nor the cynical. It is a time for passion, for tenacity and, yes, for hope.