One Year After Obama's Victory - We Are in the Opening Months of a New Progressive Era
As I watched Barack Obama's victory speech, I thought that America was on the brink of a new progressive era. I believe that just as strongly one year later. I know there are many Progressives who are disappointed at the pace of change, or who believe that there are many instances when the Obama Administration should take bolder action. Sometimes I am among them. But there is no question that in the first nine months of his Presidency, Barack Obama has begun to lead America in a fundamentally new direction. The success of this new progressive project will certainly depend upon the decisions that he and those around him make in the years ahead. But it will also depend on the skill, resilience and resourcefulness of the progressive forces in America.
In evaluating his leadership - and the success Progressives have had since that hopeful night in Chicago's Grant Park -- seven points are especially important.
1). Obama has fundamentally changed the political value frame. For the thirty years before Obama's election, the full constellation of right wing values charted the path for American political and economic development. Obama has shifted that value frame from the Right's belief in unbridled pursuit of individual interest, to the progressive commitment to the common good; from selfishness to commitment to others; from division to unity; from fear to hope; to the sense that we're all in this together, not "all in this alone." The Administration's political messaging, its expressed beliefs, and its policy goals all embody these progressive values -- and many of its key personnel are deeply committed to those values as well. We have a White House where idealism is cool once again.
2). Progressives are on the offensive, not the defensive. After being in a defensive crouch for over thirty years, Progressives have taken the offense. For years we have fought about defending values and policies - defending Medicare, defending Social Security, combating the ascendant Neo-Con foreign policy, defending the role of government, defending unions, defending civil liberties, defending the incomes of everyday Americans.Now the Right is attempting to slow our progress on climate change, the rights of unions, civil liberties, a public option, immigration reform, and regulating Wall Street.In the long battle between progressive and conservative values in America, that denotes a critical turning point - because in any type of combat, including politics - the force on the offense almost always prevails.
3). While the pace of many big changes has taken longer than some had hoped, it is easy to forget the major successes that have already been achieved. Here are a few:
* Saving the economy from complete meltdown - another Great Depression --following the failure of eight years of right wing economic policy and financial risk-taking "gone wild" - including his bold rescue of the American auto industry.
* Laying the first layer of a foundation for longterm, bottom-up economic growth by passing the largest economic recovery package in history and a Federal Budget that the Center on Budget Priorities called the most progressive budget in half a century.
* Abandoning the failed Neo-Con foreign policy and changing our relationship with the rest of the world.
* Signing into law measures that had repeatedly passed the Democratic Congress but been vetoed by George Bush - the "Matthew Shepard" bill that expands the definition of hate crimes to include sexual orientation, expanding the State Children's Health Care Program (SCHIP), and passing the "Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act" that seriously strengthened the ability of women to seek redress for employment discrimination.
* The Administration and Congress ended a program of wasteful subsidies to private banks that provided student loans using Federal money and used the savings to greatly expand Pell Grants to college students.
* Executive actions like ending the "Global Gag Rule" that prevented U.S. foreign aid from going to family planning programs that even mentioned abortion - and changes in labor law enforcement that make it easier to organize on the job.
* Ending torture.
* Funding stem cell research and generally restoring a respect for science to government.
* Setting and keeping to a schedule to end the American presence in Iraq.
* Putting in motion a legislative agenda that will make major progressive change: providing health care for all, creating clean energy jobs and addressing global warming, overhauling the regulation of the financial sector and beginning to shrink its dominance in the American economy, and passing comprehensive immigration reform.
4). Why have the major initiatives in his agenda taken longer than some might have hoped? Because, as a great American once said: "power surrenders nothing without a struggle." You don't just snap your fingers to make fundamental change. That's because fundamental change alters the relations of power - it removes power and money from one group of people and gives it to another.The insurance companies and big Wall Street banks were not about to just roll over and say "I give up." Why is it so tough to pass real health care reform through a Congress that is dominated by Democrats? Because Congress is an expression of the distribution of power in American society and that's what Progressives are out to change. Obama - and the rest of the progressive forces in America - have to make change starting with things as they are - not things as they wish they were.
That doesn't mean we can make fundamental change. Nor does it mean we have to settle for "gradualism" or accept the rules of the game as they are. It does mean that change is not neat and simple. It involves struggle and conflict. It is war without bloodshed and sometimes it isn't pretty. It means you can't have the rain without the thunder and lightning - and sometimes it takes a little longer than planned.
5). The importance of a President that is both committed to progressive values and cool under fire is not simply manifest when it comes to passing a legislative agenda. It is critical when it comes time to deal with any form of real crises. In 1963, John Kennedy relied on his own steady temperament and progressive values to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis that nearly led to nuclear War with the Soviet Union. Think how lucky we were that George Bush and Don Rumsfeld were not the ones with their fingers on the nuclear trigger.This Administration demonstrated its ability to deal with major crises as soon as it walked in the door and acted decisively to avoid another Great Depression. America could confront any number of other unexpected dangerous crises on any given day. It ought to literally make the people of America sleep better tonight that Barack Obama, and not George W. Bush or John McCain or Sarah Palin, sits in the Oval Office to deal with them.
6). The key for us - and for Obama - is not to miss this historic window of opportunity to make real structural change - to emerge from battle having changed the relations of power. That is the central element that will allow progress to continue and accelerate.
The key to health care reform, regulatory reform, energy legislation, and immigration reform is to get the architecture right. Quantitative questions we can compromise on now - and fix later. But we have to get the qualitative things right the first time.
We must have a public option in a health care bill, not just to provide consumers with more choices or put downward pressure on health insurance rates. We need a public option to change the relations of power in the health care industry. We need to take power away from private insurers who have a stranglehold on our health care and put it into the hands of voters, citizens and and consumers who make choices.
We need to change the regulatory architecture of the financial sector to reduce its outsized power, to change the perverse incentives that promote reckless risk-taking, and to prevent it from siphoning off all of our nation's economic growth from ordinary Americans as it did during the last eight years.
We need to change the rules of the economic game that incentivize the discharge of greenhouse gases and enslave us to foreign oil.
And Progressives need to change the immigration laws to take 12 million people out of the shadows - and, by the way, to change the balance of electoral power in a number of key states.
Progressive success ultimately revolves around our ability to change the relations of power - to democratize power in our society. Obama and those leading his Administration understand that and have launched an agenda to help make it happen.
7). Finally, how long the window for progressive change stays open depends entirely on our ability to forge an enduring progressive political majority - among the electorate, in Congress and in our state Legislatures. In the near term, that means holding our ground in the 2010 mid-terms. Of course the major factor affecting our success in 2010 will be Obama's ability to show progress creating jobs. That will certainly require a good deal more Federal stimulus early next year. It will also require continued attention to great messaging and to political organizing. So far Obama has done his politics with enormous skill. His approval rating stands at a robust 56% in most polls and fewer Americans (20%) self-identify as Republicans than at any other time in a quarter-century. We've done a good job helping the Republicans marginalize themselves - but of course Sarah Palin, Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party gang haven't needed much help guiding their party out to the margins of the political playing field.
Obama's commitment to political organization has not diminished. His political organization, Organize for America (OFA) has blossomed into a major force. By and large, Obama has done a masterful job cultivating and maintaining the relationship of his administration to the many elements of the progressive base.
But our success in 2010 also rests upon Obama's ability to deliver real, meaningful change on his big-ticket items over the next six months. Someone suggested the other day that if we can't get everything we want on health care or regulatory reform, we should stall action and ask the voters to send us more progressive Democrats. Unfortunately, history tells us that if Obama doesn't deliver on things like health care reform, his numbers and the Democratic brand will sink and leave many Democratic candidates for Congress looking for other lines of work.
We have to win health care reform and the other items on our agenda before the next election season. That doesn't mean we should settle for wins in name only. Completely apart from the importance of changing the relations of power in America, real change is necessary to produce the final ingredient for electoral success in 2010: Obama needs to be able to reinvigorate the base - to inspire once again. To inspire the base we have to deliver real change. For instance, we can't settle for a health care bill that is not affordable and doesn't have a public option -- and if it takes a bloody fight to get them, we have to have the stomach for the task.
A lot has happened since November 4, 2008 and the plot line will thicken over the next six months. Barack Obama will be the leading man in this drama. But, just as in the campaign, there is also no doubt that this story will have a cast of thousands who will have an enormous amount to say about the outcome. And I am more convinced than ever that the 2008 Obama slogan got it right: "Yes We Can."
Robert Creamer's book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," is available on amazon.com.