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Why Obama is the Most Progressive Candidate

By       (Page 1 of 2 pages)   2 comments
Message Douglas C. Smyth
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In terms of the Liberal-Conservative spectrum, Hillary's touted programs, the ones she recites over and over on the campaign trail, are slightly more liberal than the specifics cited by Obama. And yet, Obama is profoundly more progressive than she is.


Health care is an example of why I say this. Hillary's program includes a mandate, meaning that insurance would be mandatory; if you don't pay for insurance, the government would make sure that you do, or you have to pay a fine in lieu of insurance. Obama's program has no mandate, which is why Hillary claims that it is not universal coverage; she may have a point.


But Obama claims that his plan would make health care affordable for everyone, and the problem is not that people don't want insurance, but that they can't afford it. Further, he points out something that some people in Massachusetts are beginning to find out about mandates: people who don't have health insurance have to pay fines, and still don't have health insurance, probably because they still can't afford it.


Obama also says that to achieve health care, the process of developing the program is not set in stone, and it would be open to public scrutiny and input, both in order to be responsive to people's concerns and to build support for it. Hillary objected to such an approach in their last debate, saying that it would sabotage the goal. In other words, she advocates the kind of failed process she authored back in the '90's, when her health care working group deliberated behind closed doors: the effect of secrecy was to permit the insurance companies to set the public against it.


These are two very different approaches to creating policy. Hillary's is to depend on experts; it betrays a mistrust of public input; it is top-down. Obama continually harks back to his work as a community organizer, and his approach is much more open-ended and people-centered. He talks about "bottom-up" and I think he means it; his campaign in the primaries has been dependent on just such a bottom-up approach, and its effects were felt almost immediately in Iowa and in other caucus states, which gave him the momentum to organize more broadly.


So, his positions are more or less similar to Clinton's, and on some domestic issues he might present ideas that are slightly less conventionally liberal than Hillary's, but his overall approach is more progressive, or populist. On foreign policy, his Iraq position is only slightly more anti-war than hers, but it is cautious. Obama is not going to stake himself out as unequivocally for a full withdrawal from Iraq as soon as possible until he can persuade more people. But his offer to speak with our "adversaries" personally--an offer derided by Hillary as naive--is a demonstration of the kind of dramatic departure from Cold War Liberalism he promises.


It is Obama's process, his approach to policy that is fresh.


We need an almost radical approach, because Bush is a radical, and he radically re-made almost the whole government: the Presidency, foreign policy, the Supreme Court, the government's treatment of its citizens (under surveillance, regardless of Constitutional civil rights), the tax system, and the Presidency's relationship to the other branches of government.


Incrementalism, or moderation, would leave many of Bush's changes in place, a creeping tyranny and an Imperial Presidency that is heading towards an Imperial dictatorship. In fact that's part of the problem with the current Democratic majority in Congress; it is too incrementalist. What is needed is a radical populist takeover of government that would fundamentally re-democratize the American system.


While Hillary offers specific palliatives, Obama offers a whole different way of seeing the issues. That's what the slogan: "Yes, we can!" really means. It doesn't mean, "We can just do this little bit, because to do more is unrealistic." It means opening up the process. What the Obama "movement" is becoming is a progressive force with its own momentum; it's probably not entirely under Barack's control, but that's as it should be for a populist movement.


Part of Obama's appeal is also why some people still support Hillary: his lack of a lengthy resume in Washington. He served 8 years in the Illinois legislature, where Lincoln also served several years (Lincoln served one two-year term in Congress and failed to get re-elected), and Barack's been long enough in Washington to know how it works. He's demonstrated that he does. He's sponsored and passed scores of bills, almost as many in his short term as Hillary in her term and a half. The claim that he doesn't know his way around Congress and policy is dead wrong. He's not some wide-eyed Arkansan who's never been in Washington. Bill was. Hillary, of course, is not, which is also part of her problem: she really is from inside the Beltway, where everyone is connected.


But Obama hasn't been there long enough to have been captured by the numbing Beltway mentality, the one that says: you can't do this, and you have to do that, because of those powers behind the doors, or because that's the way it's always been. He obviously knows his way around that world well enough. What's more impressive is that a good number of his and Hillary's colleagues have endorsed him, the most prominent of which are: Ted Kennedy, the last reminder of JFK, old liberal warhorse in Congress, who has done more for liberal causes than anyone still standing, and John Kerry, last go-round's unsuccessful nominee. There are others, like liberal stalwart Patrick Leahy from Vermont, fellow newcomer Claire McCaskill, Illinois colleague Dick Durban and Senators Kent Conrad and Tim Johnson from North and South Dakota.


While he's collected more money than Hillary, some of it from people high up in large corporations, he hasn't gotten money from lobbyists, he claims, and he's collected more from lawyers, many of whom have fought against those corporations. He's not dependent on large donations the way Hillary is, either, because he has his movement, people like my son, and like my wife, who have already given to his campaign, along with over 440,000 others just since January.


So, Obama, potentially, could undo the damage that GW has left us with, and lead us in a new progressive direction that would change the way people think in this country. He's talking about using the Presidency as a bully pulpit, the way FDR and JFK did. The mis-quote about him praising Reagan was while explaining this more activist role of the Presidency. Reagan was a President who changed the way people thought about their country; Obama was not implying that Reagan's ideas were good; he deplored them.


Under Bill Clinton the nation actually became more conservative, despite having a moderately progressive President. Bill had the ability to use the bully pulpit, but he didn't conceive of the office in that way. His presidency was about an agenda (much of it unrealized), about putting out fires, and about figuring out how to out-maneuver the Republicans. He was good at the latter, but at the end of it there was still a Republican Congress, more Republican governors, and a conservative consensus. Hillary has not demonstrated that she could use the bully pulpit; her speaking skills have improved, but she is definitely not inspirational. She sounds like she knows what she's doing, but what she presents is a laundry list, not a great vision. Her conception of the Presidency is akin to Bill's, but she also probably cannot do what Bill could have done, but did not.


Obama, on the other hand, is campaigning for the bully pulpit. The point of his campaign, epitomized in the "Change" slogan, is that the Presidency can make a real difference--as it has in the past--and he's demonstrated with his campaign speeches that he has the ability, more than Bill ever had.

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I am a writer and retired college teacher. I taught college courses in Economics and Political Science (I've a Ph.D) and I've written as a free-lancer for various publications.

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