Barack Obama was elected president at a time defined by hope and fear in equal measure. It was a remarkable moment in our country’s history–a milestone in America’s scarred racial landscape and a victory for the forces of decency, diversity and tolerance. For the first time in decades, electoral politics became a vehicle for raising expectations and spreading hope while it mobilized millions of new voters. Obama’s was a campaign built on the power and promise of change from below. At the same time, he was elected as the nation was rapidly sinking into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The night Obama was elected, relief was felt around the world. There was a widespread feeling that the United States had turned its back on eight years of destructive, swaggering unilateralism and was re-embracing the global community. In many ways, the election was a referendum on an extremist conservatism that has guided (and deformed) American politics and society since the 1980s. The spectacular failures of the Bush administration and the shifts in public opinion on the economy and the Iraq War presented a mandate for bold action and a historic opportunity for a progressive governing agenda.
A year later, it’s clear we are a long way from building a new order and reshaping the prevailing paradigm of American politics. That will take more than one election. It requires continued mobilization, strategic creativity and, yes, audacity on the part of independent thinkers, activists and organizers. The structural obstacles to change are considerable. But at least we now have the political space to push for far-reaching reforms.
Whatever one thinks of Obama’s policy on any specific issue, he is clearly a reform president committed to the improvement of people’s lives and to the renewal and reconstruction of America. Yes, his economic recovery plan was too small and too deferential to the Republican Party and tax cuts. But it has kept the economy from falling into the abyss, and it includes more new net public investment in antipoverty measures than any program since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
We need a much more robust jobs program–without one, Americans will not believe this president stands with the working people. Obama would be wise to use his presidential pulpit and brilliant oratorical skills to explain that when one out of six Americans is unemployed or underemployed, our greatest fear should be joblessness, not deficits.
Still, there’s much to be praised. Obama has spoken eloquently of a new and progressive role for government. His first appointment to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, was a strong choice–the first Latina on the Court and a powerful progressive jurist. In selecting Sotomayor, Obama has finally halted the Court’s long drift to the right. The president says the labor movement is the solution, not the problem. (If he really believes this, he should act on it by pushing for speedy passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.) He has reinvigorated the regulatory agencies in Washington, from the EPA to the FCC (in doing so he has, ironically, fueled a full-employment program for K Street lobbyists). He has repealed the global gag rule on abortion, has spoken of the urgency of the climate crisis and has restored integrity to the government’s scientific research programs.