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.
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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.
Progressive movements will need this full range of strategies if we are to make headway in the two areas where the president has disappointed most: the scale and terms of the economic recovery, and the escalation of the national security state with its erosion of civil liberties. On the former, Obama’s Recovery Act saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, prevented mass destitution and staved off a depression. But from the beginning of the financial crisis, progressive economists were calling on the president to champion a much larger stimulus and to reject the mantra of deficit reduction. What they lacked was a wide-scale social movement to turn their proposals into demands. Into that vacuum rushed the Tea Party, which offered sham solutions but at least spoke to the disorientation of the downwardly mobile. Only when the crisis had hardened into gridlock in Washington, did the uprisings in Wisconsin and Ohio come—and then Occupy. Absent those movements, the president’s first instinct was to turn to the technocrats whose priority was always to keep Wall Street intact. Only when challenged by the 99 percent did he begin to speak about the “breathtaking greed of a few, with irresponsibility all across the system” and to make the case for reducing inequality and restoring basic economic fairness. Should Obama win re-election, surely he will owe a large debt to the street activists, whose protests against the 1 percent made so effective the Obama campaign’s attack on Romney for his Bain economics and his apparent disdain for the “47 percent.” Come 2013, that debt should be called in, forcefully, to push for real financial regulation and job creation.
To his credit, Obama presided over the end of the Iraq War and is bringing the war in Afghanistan to a close. But there is no denying this president’s spinal collapse when it comes to defending core civil liberties. Obama promised to close Guantánamo, then reversed himself. He did not end military tribunals and restore the rule of law for terror suspects. He launched a drone war that is killing civilians and fueling a backlash against the United States throughout the Muslim world. And he has not rolled back the imperial presidency of George W. Bush, as he promised; indeed, in some instances, more power has been concentrated in the White House by a president who now reserves the right to extrajudicially assassinate US citizens.
But while the antiwar and civil liberties communities have challenged Obama, he has largely been spared the vigorous denunciations liberals heaped on Bush. We have never been silent about our objections to Obama’s misdeeds, and we don’t ever intend to be. But if on some foreign policy and national security matters the president has shocked his progressive supporters by edging the needle to the right, Mitt Romney promises to move it even further—embracing again the “enhanced interrogation techniques” promoted by Bush and Cheney and moving into lockstep with Israel’s dangerous war games with Iran. No matter who is in the White House, a revived peace and antiwar movement has a lot of work ahead of it in the next four years—but it is impossible to imagine any progress on that front with a Romney administration in power.
Indeed, this is true for any cause that progressives care about. Republican rule in Washington promises not just the closing of progressive possibilities but the repeal of gains won by the great social movements of the twentieth century. It would mean the entrenchment of the class interests of a tiny, disconnected elite that looks down on the rest of society with barely concealed contempt and has made explicit its aim to shred the social contract and rig the game in its favor, whether through an assault on voting rights, an expansion of the power of big money in politics or by stacking the courts with right-wing extremists.
The threat is clear: we can’t afford a Romney/Ryan victory. Progressives made real advances during Obama’s four years in office, and we can build on the lessons and struggles of his first term if he’s given a second. But with the so-called fiscal cliff looming at year’s end, and with Obama gesturing toward a Grand Bargain that concedes far too much to the right, it would be a mistake to believe we can cast our votes and go home, secure in the knowledge that our nation’s social contract with all its citizens will be protected. What was true in 2008 is still true today: electing Obama is a necessary first step, but the more complex challenges commence after election day.