What Obama Needs for Progressive Reform

What Obama Needs for Progressive Reform

What Obama Needs for Progressive Reform

Here’s how progressives can ensure Obama’s success.



Electric. When Barack Obama receives the Democratic presidential nomination before 75,000 people in Denver’s Mile High Stadium on the forty-fifth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, new possibilities will be born. A historic candidacy, a new generation in motion, a nation yearning for change. Even the cynics running the McCain campaign might be touched, if they weren’t so busy savaging Obama as a vain celebrity not up to the task of leading a nation.

No one should be blinded by the lights. It will take hard work to turn the nomination into victory in a campaign that has already turned ugly. Moreover, even if victorious, Obama will inherit the calamitous conditions wrought by conservative failures–a sinking economy, unsustainable occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, accelerating climate change, Gilded Age inequality, a broken healthcare system and much more.

Obama will also be limited by the constricted consensus of an establishment not yet able to contemplate the changes needed to set this country right again. To be successful, his presidency will have to be bolder and more radical than now imagined.

A historic candidate, the forbidding conditions and the constricted consensus make it vital that progressives think clearly and act independently in forging a strategy over the next months. The following is a contribution to a rich and ongoing discussion. We invite others to join it at thenation.com in the weeks to come.

A Sea-Change Election

The Obama nomination sets the stage for a sea-change election, one that could not only elect a Democratic President and increased reform majorities in both houses of Congress but also mark a clear turn from the conservative ideas that have dominated our politics for three decades.

In recent weeks, the media–primed by a Republican strategy contrasting Obama’s purported doublespeak with McCain’s alleged Straight Talk–have focused on Obama’s compromises and backsliding. Much of the alleged retrenchment has been exaggerated. Some of it–like his fold on the FISA wiretap bill, mixed signals on trade, the compromise on offshore drilling–has been clear and deplorable. Many on the left were dismayed as the Obama campaign trotted out advisers from a Democratic bench that had championed the toxic Rubinomics brew of corporate trade and financial deregulation.

These concerns should not distract us from the central reality: this election features a stark ideological contrast. Although marketed as a trustworthy maverick, McCain accurately describes himself as a “foot soldier in the Reagan revolution” and attests that “on the transcendent issues, the most important issues of our day, I’ve been totally in agreement and support of President Bush.” He is committed to the full Bush catastrophe: continued war in Iraq, more tax cuts for the wealthiest, more corporate trade deals, more deregulation, more hostility toward labor, more conservative social policies and reactionary judges. Indeed, he’s Bush on steroids. McCain seeks not only to privatize Social Security but also to unravel employer-based healthcare, leaving people to negotiate alone with insurance companies liberated from regulation. His bellicose posturing on Iran and Iraq is as disastrous as his pledge of impossibly deep cuts in domestic programs. He embraces the corporate economic and trade agenda that has so devastated the American middle class. If he is defeated, it will mark the end of the Reagan era.

Obama clearly offers a change of course. His victory in itself will require overcoming the racial fears that have so long divided this country. He carries a reform agenda–largely driven by progressives–into the election: an end to the occupation of Iraq, using the money squandered there to rebuild America; affordable healthcare for all, paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy; a concerted drive for energy independence, generating jobs while investing in renewable energy and conservation. He is committed to empowering labor, to holding corporations and banks more accountable and to challenging our trade policies. A social liberal, his judicial appointees will keep the right from consolidating its hold on the federal judiciary. Obama may not be a “movement” progressive in the way that Reagan was a “movement” conservative, and he may have disappointed activists with his recent compromises, but make no mistake: his election will open a new era of reform, the scope of which will depend–as Obama often says–on independent progressive mobilization to keep the pressure on and overcome entrenched interests.

As this is written, an election Obama should win handily is locked in a virtual tie. Both the Obama and McCain campaigns treat the race as a referendum on Obama, with the former focused on getting Americans comfortable with trusting a young African-American with an unusual name, and the Rove minions in the McCain campaign intent on stoking the fears that enabled them to assemble a white majority party in the past.

Obama’s campaign will not succeed without the independent efforts of progressive activists. One central task is winning support among wary white blue-collar workers, the core target of the Rovian poison. This will require persuasion as well as mobilization; the work of the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, Working America, religious groups and others with a base in these communities in swing states will be of critical importance.

Progressives generally–and independent media and the blogosphere specifically–can contribute by reminding voters there’s a clear choice in this election, with McCain representing the same old, same old. While exposing McCain’s doubletalk, his Bush-redux agenda and the money and interests behind the scurrilous right-wing independent expenditure campaigns, progressives can also help build support for reform. The new Health Care for America Now coalition, for example, has the resources to expose McCain’s healthcare folly, thereby building a mandate for universal coverage. The antiwar movement should be challenging McCain’s saber-rattling on Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, helping to strengthen US support for a change in course. With gas prices at the center of American concerns, the environmental alliance around jobs and energy can consolidate support for a concerted drive toward energy independence, while challenging absurd claims that we can drill our way out of the crisis.

Driving Reform

While focusing on what is certain to be a difficult campaign, progressives should start thinking now about strategy for an Obama presidency. Clearly his election and inauguration would mark an exciting moment. At home, a new sense of energy and idealism will be unleashed. Across the world, his election will begin the process of restoring America’s ravaged reputation. Not only will Obama usher a new generation into politics, but for the first time a President with experience as a community organizer will have the ability to mobilize directly a dedicated following larger than any other in politics [see our roundtable forum of community organizers].

In the first months of an Obama administration, progressives should be pursuing an inside-outside strategy in relation to the administration. For example, in the transition, we should push to place allies in strategic positions, particularly in the areas of economic policy and national security. The AFL-CIO and other groups are preparing lists of potential candidates. These inside efforts should be complemented by watchdog monitoring and reporting on potential nominees. No free pass should be given to those who drove the financial and trade policies that led to the current economic debacles or supported the invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign policy fiasco in recent history.

For Obama to achieve his core promises, he will have to push significant reforms early. As Dan Lazare has argued, our entire political system is designed to block reform, not facilitate it. Periods of significant change in American politics are rare, but they feature spasms of furious activity: Roosevelt’s first 100 days, Johnson’s push in 1964-65, Reagan’s reaction in 1981-82. Inevitably, these spasms don’t last long before reaction sets in. So it is vital to move rapidly and boldly and across many areas to have any chance at success.

Obama’s first decision–to be made, no doubt, during the transition–will be the most telling. He has pledged that he will instruct the Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare a sensible plan for ending the Iraq occupation. Already, Democratic security advisers who initially supported the war are calling for “conditional engagement,” arguing that the United States can’t afford simply to set a timetable to get out. Thus it is vital that the peace movement organize aggressively during the campaign, and mobilize independently and visibly immediately after the election. The Obama White House must have no doubt about the firestorm in Congress, in the streets and within the Democratic Party that would be caused by a retreat from this pledge.

If the Iraq promise is kept, progressives will sensibly work to help define Obama’s agenda from the inside and support key parts from the outside. He will lay out a major initiative on jobs and energy. He has said that he’ll try to push through healthcare reform quickly–although that is likely to trigger trench warfare in Congress (and progressives will have to overcome deep internal divisions to ensure that fundamental reform succeeds). Obama will reverse many of the reactionary Bush executive orders, from the global gag rule to secrecy excesses stemming from the “war on terror.” His first budget decisions most likely will have to deal directly with a broader stimulus plan to get the economy going. He has pledged to support passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, enabling workers to organize unions without employer harassment.

But Obama will encounter formidable obstacles. He’ll face a business lobby girded for battle. Corporations have already begun moving more of their money to Democratic incumbents and are snapping up former Democratic legislators and staffers for their lobbies [see “Dollars for Donkeys” on page 28]. They will do everything they can to stall healthcare and drug-pricing reform, empowerment of workers and re-regulation of Wall Street. Moreover, while Democrats are likely to enjoy larger majorities in both houses, their caucuses are likely to be less progressive as they pick up seats in very conservative, formerly Republican districts.

Progressives will enjoy their greatest strength mobilizing independently to support Obama’s promises. We can organize constituent pressure on politicians who are blocking the way, something even a President with Obama’s activist network would be loath to do. We can expose the lobbies and interests and backstage maneuvers designed to limit reforms. Now that newspapers increasingly lack the resources for investigation, progressive media, online and off, and the independent progressive media infrastructure–from The Nation to Media Matters to Brave New Films to The Huffington Post–must assume a greater role in monitoring the opposition, even as we mobilize activists in targeted districts across the country.

In doing this, we can help give backbone to the Obama agenda, even as we supply muscle and energy to help pass it. The best way to achieve this is to generate large-scale independent-issue campaigns. A clear example is the Healthcare for Americans Now Coalition, which is ready to take on the insurance companies and support the White House’s commitment to universal care. The new Half in Ten Campaign, spearheaded by ACORN and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, will help ensure that poverty does not disappear from the agenda. Progressives generally should join the AFL-CIO and Change to Win in their drive to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. The Apollo Alliance and a range of environmental efforts will support the initiative on jobs and energy.

Acting in support of Obama will require challenging legislators in both parties who stand in the way, a task progressives should undertake aggressively. The Service Employees International Union has already taken the lead in announcing a $10 million “accountability program,” designed to force politicians to heed the will of their voters, with a new plan–Justice for All–as the core vehicle. This should be complemented by other independent efforts, despite likely objections from the Democratic Congressional leadership and possibly the White House. Democrats should be on notice from their own constituents that they will be expected to help move reform, not stand in its way.

The Constricted Consensus

The great challenge for progressives is whether the energy and idealism unleashed by the Obama candidacy–and the collapse of conservatism–can expand the limits of the current debate. McCain promises merely more of the same bankrupt policies, but Obama’s reform agenda is itself limited by a very constricted establishment consensus that is an obstacle to real change.

On national security, both candidates have pledged to increase the size of the military, adding billions to a bloated budget that already represents nearly half the world’s military spending. Both assume America’s role as globocop; neither suggests unraveling the US empire of military bases. Both seem intent on deepening the occupation of Afghanistan. Neither has dared to embrace the conservative RAND Corporation’s conclusion that the very notion of a “war on terror” is counterproductive, and that aggressive intelligence and police cooperation should be the centerpiece of our strategy.

Obama has called for a second stimulus plan focused on new energy and rebuilding America, but he hasn’t suggested anything like the major public initiatives–the combination of public investment, revised global economic strategy, industrial policy and financial regulation–that would be essential to get the real economy moving again while responding to the threat of catastrophic climate change.

Obama has made affordable healthcare for all a centerpiece of his agenda, but he has not addressed the unraveling of the private social contract once delivered through corporations and unions. It will take independent efforts to drive an economic bill of rights, from healthcare to pensions to Social Security to guaranteed paid vacation, in addition to paid sick days and family leave.

Obama laid out promising principles for financial reform in his Cooper Union speech in March, but he hasn’t challenged the Wall Street bailout, nor has he mobilized support for policing the shadow banking system that has proved so destructive in its greed.

Obama defends liberal social reforms, but a serious war on poverty–or an initiative to transform our brutal criminal system of injustice that is devastating the lives of young minority men–is not yet on the agenda.

And while Obama is a former professor of constitutional law, he hasn’t called for dismantling the imperial presidency. It will take independent efforts to reclaim for the Congress and the people the powers Bush has arrogated to the presidency.

This corrosive consensus reflects the entrenched power of the established order. It is enforced by aggressive lobbies–the military-industrial complex, Wall Street, corporate interests–and rationalized by well-upholstered house scholars. The establishment’s strength is its ability to simply exclude alternatives from serious consideration.

After the first flurry of activity, an Obama administration may well realize that the dire condition of the country demands a far bolder agenda than what is now on the table. Progressives should recognize that an Obama administration would have no alternative but to be one of constant experimentation. We should embrace the best of the public-policy proposals that scholars are developing in our universities and think tanks. These ideas challenge limited assumptions about government and call for everything from dismantling our empire of military bases to curbing the imperial presidency, from passing progressive tax reforms to strengthening the public commons. Again, independent campaigning–particularly regarding concerns not high on the national agenda–will help lift issues into the mainstream.

Here it will be vital to sustain a reform infrastructure independent of the administration or the Democratic leadership in Congress. Progressives in the Senate and House, many grouped around the Progressive Caucus, can provide both leadership and a public forum for new ideas. Independent research institutes–like the Institute for America’s Future, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Economic Policy Institute and others–can help think outside the establishment box. Progressive bloggers can track the limits of the debate and give new ideas greater visibility. Reform leaders at the state and local levels, coordinated by centers like the Progressive States Network, can champion legislation–like paid sick days, mandated vacation minimums, early childhood education, tighter regulation of insurance companies, creative financing for energy conservation projects–that will be a model for the national agenda. Grassroots organizing–neighbor to neighbor, supported by the energy of the young, linked to national concerns–will be essential if Obama’s election is to generate thoroughgoing reform.

When John F. Kennedy was elected President, he too summoned a new generation into politics. While Kennedy’s agenda was limited, the energy he unleashed helped build the civilizing movements of the following decades–the antiwar, civil rights, women’s, environmental and gay rights movements.

America now is very different from the America of the 1960s. Those movements, nurtured in the cradle of postwar prosperity, assumed the country could afford to be more just. This generation has grown up with much greater economic insecurity, is laden with debt and is struggling to find decent jobs. It faces an economy that cannot be sustained–and must be transformed.

But once more a young and exciting candidate, seeking the presidency after a long and failed conservative era, can spark the hope and sense of possibility that carry far beyond his campaign platform. Progressives should be focusing less on the limits of the Obama agenda and more on the possibilities that a successful candidacy opens up.

As a former community organizer, Obama has taught that “real change comes from the bottom up.” It comes about by “imagining and then fighting for and then working for–struggling for–what did not seem possible before.” As President, he will face conflicting pressures, and undoubtedly he will carefully pick his fights. The movement that he has called into being will have little choice but to embrace his charge and mobilize across the country to achieve what “did not seem possible before.”

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