"Change don't come easy."
Barely more than a year in office, the Obama presidency seems besieged. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a worsening catastrophe, casts a haunting pall. A jobs bill, even when cribbed, is torpedoed by members of the president's own party in Congress. Entrenched interests delay and dilute vital reforms. On the right, a furious reaction builds. Former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich rallies conservatives against the "secular socialist Obama machine." Pundits predict Republicans will benefit from their strategy of obstruction and make significant gains in the fall elections.
Will reaction block renewal? Will a politics of hate overcome the politics of hope? Will the Gulf oil disaster become a metaphor for government too incapacitated or too compromised to address the challenges we face?
These are not academic questions. And the challenge for progressives is that the answers depend on what we do. Whether we mobilize or stay home, sustain hope or grow cynical, clean out Washington or give up in despair we have the power.
Many in the White House wonder why, like Rodney Dangerfield, they can't get no respect. By any historical measure, in 16 months, the president has launched the greatest reform period since the 1960s. Inheriting an economy in free fall and in two wars, he had little choice, but the accomplishments have been many.
The economic hemorrhaging was staunched, a financial collapse avoided, and a return to growth begun. The largest recovery program ever was passed, including within it the largest bolstering of poverty programs since the Great Society and the greatest investment in renewable energy ever. We've seen enacted the most significant health care reform since Medicare and the largest increase in college student aid since the GI Bill. Also in place is the greatest expansion of national service since the Civilian Conservation Corps. Soon, the most comprehensive financial reform since the Great Depression will be enacted. A nuclear arms reduction accord gave force to a commitment to nuclear disarmament. And there is much more.
Yet across the progressive movement, dismay exceeds delight. The expectations of the activist base of the party were disappointed. Feminists were stunned by the retreat on abortion in the health care bill, peace activists unsettled by the escalation in Afghanistan, environmentalists frustrated by the gridlock of energy legislation, civil libertarians appalled by retreats on everything from rendition to Guantanamo. Union activists and immigrant communities saw labor law and immigration reform deferred, if not dropped.
Some in the White House dismiss progressive dismay as merely the bursting of the unrealistic expectations of those who don't understand how Washington works or how incremental change must be--or, more cynically, the inevitable discontent of those organized to be discontented. President Obama was never a movement progressive, as Ronald Reagan was a movement conservative, so, they argue, those who drank the Kool-Aid and thought they were electing a Messiah inevitably had their hopes disappointed.
But that cynicism ignores both the needs of the country and the
moment we are in. Obama was elected with a mandate for change by a
citizenry in desperate need of it. The dismay is grounded in a stark
reality--that the Obama initiatives, however historic in comparison to
the last decades of conservative misrule, are insufficient to meet the
challenges they must address. The recovery plan was too small to put
people back to work. It's unclear whether the health care reforms will
produce affordable care. The financial reform leaves the largest banks
more concentrated and more powerful than before, even as they reopen the
Wall Street casino.
The energy bill is so compromised, its commitment to new energy so constrained, that it would leave the U.S. a laggard, not a leader, in addressing climate change. The delays and retreats on empowering workers and reforming our broken immigration system simply perpetuate an economy in which workers have been losing ground for two decades. The education aid is not sufficient to counter the tuition hikes and school cutbacks that will price more and more students out of college. Yes, they represent significant first steps, but will there be opportunity for further steps to be taken?
The Progressive Project Imperiled
Imperiled in the process is the progressive project of economic renewal itself. No one has defined that project better than Obama himself. In his inaugural address, he set the standard clearly:
The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
In his economic "Sermon on the Mount" at Georgetown, he argued that we could not go back to the bubble-and-bust economy that was built on debt, speculation, rising inequality and a declining middle class. Instead "we must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad."
Pillars of the new economy's foundation include investing in areas vital to our future--world-class education for every child, a 21st century infrastructure, research and development to fuel innovation. We must capture a lead role in the green industrial revolution that creates the markets of the future, and wean ourselves from our addiction to oil. It requires new rules to shrink finance so that it is once more the servant, not the master, of the real economy. Workers must be empowered to gain a fair share of the productivity that they help generate. Our trade must be more balanced, so we make more here and borrow and buy less from abroad. The social contract must be strengthened--with health care and a secure retirement afforded to all.