As progressives face the 2012 elections, they find themselves struggling with a profoundly difficult dilemma.
On the one hand, progressives clearly recognize the extraordinary danger presented by Republican extremism. The possibility of additional conservatives being added to the supreme court is, by itself, more than sufficient reason to conclude that the GOP must not be allowed to win in 2012 but there are equally serious threats to the survival of the New Deal social safety net, to basic worker and citizen rights and, for millions of Americans, to the continued right to vote itself. Both opinion data and progressive commentary show that only a very small fraction of 2008 Democratic voters are willing to sit out the 2012 election or support a Nader-style third party.
At the same time, however, a significant number of progressives also feel that they simply cannot support Obama with anything like the enthusiasm they felt in 2008. Beyond the general sense of disappointment and frustration that many feel with his administration, progressives cite two practical reasons – (1) that they will lose their ability to convincingly advocate for broader progressive change if they appear to be giving unqualified endorsement to Obama and (2) that they will lose all leverage within the Administration itself if they energetically support and work for his re-election without first extracting substantial policy concessions in return.
The solution many progressives have settled upon is a kind of grudging, half-hearted support, laced with criticism. It is typically expressed in the following way: “Well, yeah, I guess I’ll vote for Obama. But I sure won’t contribute any money or volunteer.”
In a recent column E.J. Dionne accurately described the progressive ambivalence:
In traveling around Iowa and New Hampshire over the last few weeks, I have been struck by the number of Democrats and independents who still more or less want Obama to win and deeply fear the consequences of a government dominated by Republicans. But having made this clear, they then bring up the ways in which they cannot summon the emotions on Obama’s behalf this year that they felt the first time around.
Some point to disappointment over his failure to confront the Republicans early enough and hard enough. How, they ask, could Obama possibly have expected cooperation from conservatives? Others are frustrated that he couldn’t bring Washington together, as he said he would. Still others point to real Obama achievements, including the stimulus and especially the health-care law, and ask why he was unable to sell their merits to a majority of the electorate. And then there are those who wonder why the malefactors of finance have faced so little accountability.
Few of these voters would ever support a Republican, and most will turn out dutifully for Obama again. But a president who won election with 52.9 percent of the vote does not have a lot of margin. He needs to worry not just about issues but also about the spirit and morale of his supporters.
This halfhearted, unenthusiastic view could be clearly discerned in the progressive reaction to Obama’s recent State of the Union speech. Progressive commentary included a significant number of opinion pieces with titles such as “Why Did It Take Obama So long,” “Semi-Tough” and even “Faux-Populism.” While many progressives were pleased, a substantial group was negative, dismissive and disappointed.
Among progressives themselves there is an intense concern that this lack of enthusiasm represents a deeply unsatisfactory and dysfunctional dead-end. All progressives are fiercely and passionately opposed to the genuinely disturbing extremism that has taken control of the Republican Party and want to fight proudly and energetically against the bitter assault on Democrats and progressives that is now underway. But because of the deeply ambivalent way Obama and the 2012 election are framed in much of the progressive discussion, however, they find themselves unable to unite around an aggressive and positive approach.
But what is the alternative? How can progressives actively and passionately participate in the 2012 elections despite their various criticisms and disagreements with Obama?
The history of progressive social movements of the past suggests the answer: progressives themselves should aggressively re-frame what their participation in the 2012 election is actually about. Rather than accepting the definition of progressive participation in the 2012 election as representing unqualified support for Obama as a human symbol and embodiment of all progressive hopes, dreams and values, progressives should re-frame their participation as representing instead their support for something quite different — for a broad “progressive agenda for change.”
This is not a new departure for progressives but rather a return to the traditional progressive approach. It is, in fact, a rather unique historical accident that in the 2008 election progressives united behind a particular presidential candidate before they had united around a clear progressive agenda. This made Obama as an individual rather than a shared progressive agenda the center of the progressive message and organizing in that election campaign.
In previous eras of social change, in contrast, the progressive agenda and the movement to achieve it clearly and unambiguously came before any progressive commitment to any particular political campaign. The rise of the trade union movement preceded Franklin Roosevelt’s first campaign, the civil rights movement preceded John Kennedy’s 1960 election and the anti-war movement preceded the political campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. In each case progressives had united around a progressive agenda well before they united around a candidate and in every case it was the agenda that embodied the most deeply held progressive ideals and perspective rather than support for any particular Democratic politician.
Obama’s recent State of the Union Speech now provides a way to recreate this more traditional — and profoundly more healthy — relationship between political candidates and the progressive agenda. Obama defined his State Of The Union speech as a “blueprint” for America but it is more accurately described as the “outline” or “framework” for a Democratic economic agenda. As such, it makes it possible for progressives to advocate and organize support for a broad progressive agenda in 2012 rather than simply for Obama as a symbol and icon.
Obama’s State of the Union speech had two key features that make this approach particularly feasible in this election year.
First, the speech was unusually comprehensive. Just look at the range of topics that were covered:
• Encouraging Manufacturing in America
• Reforming Corporate Taxation
• Increasing Fairness in Foreign Trade
• Improving the Training Skilled Workers
• Improving Education
• Making Higher Education More Affordable
• Supporting Innovation
• Designing an Sustainable Energy Policy – Balancing Fossil Fuels and Clean Energy
• Investing in Infrastructure
• Fixing the Housing Market and Mortgages
• Increasing Necessary Corporate and Financial Regulation
• Increasing Tax Fairness and the Buffet Rule
• Reducing the Role of Money in Politics
• Reducing the Deliberate Obstruction of Necessary Government Functions
This is far more than a typical, “grab-bag” or “laundry list” of liberal policy proposals. It represents a quite comprehensive list of the issues that need to be included in a coherent Democratic platform or agenda. Conservatives were not wrong when they called the speech the outline of a de-facto industrial or national economic policy.
But at the same time, the speech offers an extremely limited and cautious set of specific proposals – a package that is perhaps best described as “short-term” or “small-bore.” It poses clear contrasts between the Democratic and Republican philosophy on all of the basic issues above but it also carefully limits itself to proposals that are specific enough to be embodied in concrete pieces of legislation that can be acted on within a single legislative session. Virtually all economists will agree that the limited set of proposals in the speech cannot possibly by themselves solve the major problems faced by the U.S. Rather, the speech must be viewed as an essentially political document – its function is to draw clear contrasts between the long-range approach of Democrats and Republicans, to dramatize the clear choices they offer between alternative directions for America and to embody those contrasts in narrowly defined legislative proposals.
This “cautious,” “small-bore” approach clearly serves Obama’s political purposes in the coming campaign. But the critical fact is that, at the same time, it actually also provides a unique opportunity for progressives to redefine their participation in the coming election and their relationship to Obama.
Using the basic “outline” or “framework” that the speech provides, progressives can take the narrowly defined initial agenda that Obama has provided and — rather than simply supporting or opposing it — treat that short-term agenda as the basis for offering a more substantial long-term progressive program and agenda that extends and toughens his proposals. Progressives can unambiguously support Obama’s framework simply for what it is — a cautious “step one” — while at the same time proposing their own more bold and ambitious “steps two, three and four”
The key advantage of this approach is that it does not oblige progressives to support or uphold Obama as a faultless and shining human embodiment of their fundamental perspective. Progressives do not have to support any of his particular policy decisions during his first term, or his various cabinet choices or his previous political strategies. Instead progressives can define their support as being for the basic direction and the fundamental distinctions between Democratic and Republican perspectives that Obama’s State of the Union speech presents. And they can emphatically insist that, for progressives, the proposals in that speech are not a complete “long term solution” by themselves but rather just “a modest first step in the right direction.”
There are a wide variety of ways this general approach can be concretized into clear progressive messages and sound-bites that are neither blindly supportive nor basically negative toward Obama. Consider the following examples of how progressives can express this balanced view:
• Obama’s State of the Union speech was a good beginning, but it’s only a beginning.
• We need to take the steps Obama proposed in his State of the Union speech, but we also need to do a lot more
• Obama’s State of the Union agenda is step in right direction – but it’s only a first step
• Obama’s State of the Union speech is a cautious step one – Now here are steps two, three and four.
• Obama is at least trying to solve our problems, but to really solve them a lot more than his proposals will be needed.
In fact, this same basic approach can easily be extended to express even very sharp and forceful criticism of the Blueprint’s limitations:
• Let’s be honest. Obama’s State of the Union speech just proposed a very timid first step. It’s far too modest and full of compromises. It’s up to real progressives and independent progressive social movements to give it genuine substance and content.
• Come on, let’s not kid ourselves: Obama’s proposals alone won’t be nearly enough to really solve the problems America is facing. It’s only a very, very cautious first step. We’ll need a much more ambitious approach to create real progress.
Most progressives – other than those who honestly believe that Obama is literally no better than a Republican and who are completely committed to abstaining in 2012 or supporting a left-wing third political party — can agree with at least one of these formulations. Yet they all share a common conceptual framework: that Obama’s proposals represent a modest first step and that progressives can — and definitely should — distinguish themselves from his approach by supporting the need for more substantial second and third steps as well.
Progressives can infuse this approach with a tremendous amount of specific and solid content by drawing on existing progressive proposals that have already proposed more substantial reforms than those in the Obama framework. The Progressive Congressional Caucus has one such agenda, the American Dream Movement has another and there are a variety of other agendas as well. There are substantial overlaps between these progressive agendas that provide ample basis for consolidation and coordination.
It should be repeated that this approach does not actually represent a departure from the normal relationship that tends to exist between progressive movements and political candidates. On the contrary, it recreates the kind of relationship that the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) had with Franklin Roosevelt and the civil rights movement had with John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Those movements supported Democratic presidents but at the same time also upheld their own long-term objectives.
There are two reasons why this approach has not been feasible until now.
First, until Obama’s presented his approach in his State of the Union speech there was no coherent short-term Democratic agenda that progressives could use as their point of departure. It is only now that progressives have a sufficiently broad and multi-pronged “small-bore” Democratic agenda against which they can compare and contrast their own more ambitious proposals.
Second, many progressives find it difficult to move beyond the very deeply felt sense of distrust and frustration with Obama that has developed during the last three years. Progressives disagreed with both the substance of many of his proposals and also the political strategy he employed to achieve them. While the approach Obama took in his State of the Union speech inherently and unavoidably constitutes a clear concession that progressive demands for stronger contrasts with the Republicans and more spirited reaffirmation of traditional Democratic views were basically correct all along (and Obama’s previous strategy and tactics in critical respects wrong), many progressives still feel a deep sense of grievance. In effect, progressives would like to receive an apology – an admission that on a range of issues they were right and the administration wrong. Until they feel satisfied in this regard many do not even feel like conceding that Obama’s new approach represents a modest step forward.
The way this is expressed in practice is in the widely expressed view that progressives can’t “trust” Obama, that he will “sell them out” “stab them in the back” or “betray” them.
While this sentiment is understandable, it also reflects a failure to recognize that the existence of the “framework” and modest agenda Obama has provided makes this previous way of framing the relationship between progressives and Obama essentially obsolete. The framework solves the problem of “trust” in Obama by separating the modest Democratic agenda that it presents – a modest progressive agenda that cannot now be disavowed or repudiated by the Administration – from the inevitable legislative logrolling and compromise that is involved in congressional debate. Obama’s framework and agenda is fixed: it is what it is and says what it says. It cannot be made to retroactively disappear. If it is diluted, the dilution itself can be criticized without invalidating progressive support for the framework and modest agenda themselves. Progressives can give Obama’s framework and agenda critical support as a modest first step even as they are aware that most or even all of its proposals will not be able to survive Republican obstruction until a more democratic congress can be elected.
As a result, the framework and agenda Obama laid out in his State of the Union speech now allows progressives a way to create an essentially “start fresh” with Obama and the Democratic Party and to energetically seek the two fundamental progressive objectives
• First, to prevent Republican victories in the 2012 election – as much in down-ballot elections as at the presidential level. This is vital simply to prevent a genuinely dangerous right-wing extremist takeover of Washington and massive assaults on virtually all progressive and Democratic organizations, institutions and policies — from Planned Parenthood and trade unions to progressive think-tanks and Democratic funding sources.
• Second, to create and advocate for a robust comprehensive long-range progressive program, one that is focused on the long term, big picture future. In this perspective, Obama’s framework and modest agenda finds its place as a cautious first step.
Using this “first step, then second step” way of framing progressive activism, it becomes possible for progressives to play an active role in the 2012 elections and yet to simultaneously organize for their broader long-term goals.
This is, in fact, the same two-pronged approach that progressives followed in their relationship with the Roosevelt campaign of 1936 and the Johnson campaign in 1964 and it is not a coincidence that the Democratic victories in those same elections corresponded with two of the greatest periods of progressive growth and dynamism.
The same kind of progressive growth and dynamism can occur once again in 2012. Using this approach, 2012 can be a period during which an energized progressive movement pushes forward its long-term, comprehensive agenda at the same time that it also works to insure the re-election of Obama and other Democrats in order to prevent the triumph of a genuinely dangerous right-wing extremism.