Every week on the lecture trail I meet progressives who are demoralized and/or infuriated by Barack Obama’s performance as president. They insist that they will not work for him again or even vote for him. Many have signed petitions saying as much. They are finished with Obama.
Often they assume that I agree, since I have criticized many of Obama’s policies throughout his presidency, and I have been deeply involved in the Occupy movement. But my progressive friends and allies are overlooking that many of them made this very mistake in 2000, that their charge of betrayal is exaggerated, and that Barack Obama, for all his temporizing and capitulation, is in important ways America’s most progressive president since FDR. Moreover, electing a more compelling human being to the White House is probably impossible in this country. It is too soon to give up on our first African American president. So I wrote The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective.
America and the world would be better off today had there been a Gore Administration. President Gore would not have invaded Iraq, showered the rich with tax cuts, doubled the federal debt, or let corporate lobbyists devise America’s energy policies. The left-liberals who sat out the 2000 election or that supported Ralph Nader in Florida had cause to be frustrated with Bill Clinton’s legacy and put off by Gore’s candidacy. But the differences between the Gore Administration that should have been, and the Bush administration that occurred, were enormous, vastly outstripping the reasons that progressives gave for spurning Gore.
As for betrayal, this charge registers surprise or double-dealing. But Obama has governed in the very manner of liberal-leaning moderation that he espoused in the 2008 campaign. He never promised to get out of Afghanistan, scale back the military empire, or break the banking oligarchy. His campaign supported a public option in healthcare, but very quietly, and he talked about persuading Democrats and Republicans to work together, not about fighting for social justice causes. Obama did not have a single risky position in his campaign agenda. But too many progressives and others imagined they were electing Martin Luther King, Jr., which set them up for a mighty disillusionment.
To be sure, Obama has made brutal concessions that he never promised, mostly in hostage situations. Some are too brutal to be cleaned up even by the hostage explanation. He cut Medicaid to get a budget deal, carrying on the Beltway tradition of bashing poor people first. He offered to increase the entry age for Medicare, which is the opposite of what America needs to do in healthcare. He embraced and extended some of the Bush Administration’s worst National Security policies. He cut an atrocious deal in the debt ceiling fiasco as though he lacked any leverage, giving Republicans (on House Speaker John Boehner’s estimate) 98 percent of what they wanted.
Now we are grinding through a miserable season of cutting federal spending in a struggling economy, which is self-defeating. It is hard to remember the feeling of November 2008 that a new era was beginning. But Obama is still a figure of singular promise in American politics and he has important accomplishments to build upon—achievements that too many progressives and others fail to acknowledge.
Obama abolished the U.S.’s use of torture and the CIA’s secret prisons. He restored the liberal internationalist approach to foreign policy and made an historic outreach to the Muslim world. He stabilized an economy that was spiraling into a depression. He expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit and made major investments in job training, education, infrastructure, clean energy, housing, and scientific research. He saved the automobile industry by saving General Motors and Chrysler. He forced the health insurance companies to stop excluding people with preexisting conditions and to stop dropping people when they got sick. He made an enormous and historic gain toward universal healthcare. He signed a financial reform bill that established a consumer protection agency and put most derivative trading on an open exchange under the regulatory umbrella. He ended the war in Iraq exactly as he promised. He helped to inspire, and adeptly responded to, a wave of democratic revolutions in the Arab world. He relieved the world of Osama bin Laden and helped to end the murderous regime of Muammar Qaddafi. He ended the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” mistreatment of gays and lesbians in the military. He blocked Republicans from eliminating federal funding for Planned Parenthood. He suspended deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants lacking a criminal record. He has supported family unity in immigration policy, interpreting “family” to include the partners of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. He has endorsed gay marriage. And he has represented the United States with consummate dignity.
Somehow all of this is routinely discounted or forgotten, even as the Republican Party has lurched wildly to the Right. Within weeks of Obama’s inauguration, “I want my country back” became a staple of Republican rallies. Normal political trading stopped with the coming of Obama. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was adamant that Republican cooperation with Obama would not be tolerated; his top priority was to take down Obama.
The stimulus bill was the first test of that resolution. The U.S. had lost 3 million jobs the previous year. We lost 741,000 jobs in the month that Obama was inaugurated. Virtually every economist said that we needed a stimulus to save the nation from reliving 1933. But the stimulus bill got zero Republican votes in the House and three expensive Republican votes in the Senate. Somehow, it was horribly wrong to save the nation from crashing into another Depression. On the basis of that absurd argument, the Tea Party exploded into being and won a huge political windfall, which has made the Republican Party more extreme than ever.
Only a few years ago there were 22 Republican votes in the Senate for the Dream Act—a minimally decent immigration reform. Today there are none. On economic policy, Mitt Romney has the same prescription that George Bush touted—enact another big tax cut and let Wall Street do whatever it wants. But this time, the national debt equals the size of the entire economy, so Romney deals with that by embracing the Ryan Plan. If progressives sit out this election we are going to get a government that privatizes Social Security, replaces Medicare with a voucher, reduces Medicaid to block grants, and busts public unions, all in addition to the very policies on taxes and Wall Street that led to the Bush meltdown.
The Obama Question argues that Obama is a pragmatic, liberal-leaning centrist who prizes collaboration and accommodation, and a big-thinking ambitious type who wants to leave the largest possible legacy while governing cautiously and taking few risks. He advocates, and exemplifies, the communitarian approach of pulling people together to advance the common good. Obama hopes that if he wins a second term he will inherit a less obstructionist opposition. He will be a lame duck, the Tea Party will fade, and perhaps more Republicans will accept him as a legitimate president. Perhaps something closer to normal politics will resume.
But the big issues that loom ahead have to be fought over: Breaking up the megabanks, scaling back the global military empire, lifting the cap on the Social Security tax, adding tax brackets at the upper end, abolishing fee for service medicine, and building a clean energy economy. Obama has belatedly committed his presidency to tax fairness and social investment. But actually doing it will require more fighting than he waged on anything in his first term.
Gary Dorrien is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. His 16 books include the award-winning Social Ethics in the Making (2009), and, most recently, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). The Obama Question: A Progressive Perspective was published in April 2012 by Rowman & Littlefield.