The historic election of Barack Obama holds the promise of launching a new progressive era in the life of our nation. But as we have learned from earlier periods of our history, progressive reform is not born from one election but out of a sustained struggle involving a mobilized public seeking change. With the defeat of John McCain, one part of that struggle is over. But another has begun, as different groups within the broad Obama coalition work to influence the first crucial years of his presidency.
While many progressives are understandably concerned about Obama’s center-right appointments, the deep crises we confront–the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression and the disastrous consequences of neocon foreign policy–have compelled many establishment figures to embrace change. We believe that the scale and pace of this change must be dramatic, not incremental. In this special issue, on the eve of Obama’s inauguration, we take up some of the pivotal issues on which his presidency and a new progressive era will turn.
We begin with the first initiative of the Obama presidency–passage of a Main Street economic recovery program focused on public investment in areas vital to our future. As Robert L. Borosage and Eric Lotke argue, Obama’s legacy will be determined not by his initial program but by whether he charts a bold course for the economy–a new New Deal defined by a massive, multiyear public investment agenda–that challenges the economic strategy of the past several decades. At the heart of such a new New Deal, Jeff Madrick suggests, must be an expanded social contract based on rising wages, robust investment in education and universal, affordable healthcare.
This new social contract will not be possible without a much stronger voice for working people in the economic life of the country. Putting working people at the center of his reforms is key to the success of Obama’s promise to bring about a new energy future, as Lisa Margonelli argues. To date, mainstream efforts to promote a more efficient and low-carbon energy system have ignored the interests and potential power of working Americans. Nor is the economic crisis merely domestic. Sherle R. Schwenninger engages the central question of defining a new international economic strategy that restructures the system of international finance and trade to foster rising wages, decent work and balanced growth.
The global economic challenge reveals an inescapable reality: foreign policy cannot be put on hold while the United States deals with the economic crisis. Reordering America’s international priorities is important not just to improving our moral standing and position in the world but to realizing the goal of broadly shared prosperity at home and abroad. Juan Cole therefore lays out why it is critical that the Obama administration wind down America’s occupation in Iraq as quickly as possible.
Indeed, the success of Obama’s foreign policy depends on rejecting the disastrous “war on terror” and rethinking support for increasing US military forces in Afghanistan–which threatens to bog us down in a quagmire, drain resources needed for economic recovery at home and destabilize nuclear Pakistan. And America’s image in the greater Middle East would be vastly improved if the Obama administration were to advance a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Henry Siegman suggests. Likewise, Anatol Lieven explains the need to avoid a new cold war with Russia and establish a constructive working relationship with Moscow so as to move aggressively on nuclear disarmament and resolve the Iranian nuclear question and the conflict in Afghanistan. And Aziz Huq takes up the fundamental struggle over rescuing the Republic, curbing the imperial presidency and reasserting the rights of Americans and the constitutional system of checks and balances.
There are, of course, other pivotal issues The Nation will champion in the coming weeks and months. We welcome your suggestions on what we might propose to expand the debate. For now, as we begin this era, we remember that in his first speech as president-elect, Obama told us that “the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth but from the enduring power of our ideals, democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.” After years of playing defense, let’s free our imaginations, build creative coalitions and craft smart strategies that will push Obama and a new Congress to seize the moment and reorder America’s priorities at home and abroad.