Obama and Change
From the progressive grassroots we generally hear a fairly strong disappointment that Obama has brought far less change than we had hoped for. And that has a lot of truth to it. The problem with Democrats is quite often the genuine ideas and intentions of even the best Democrats hit the wall of business as usual in whatever political environment they find themselves and, being in general practical people, they sacrifice the ideal for the possible. Often too much. The result is genuinely disappointing. But, and I learned this watching Bill Clinton's administration at work, often the best things they do are under most people's radar or are under appreciated. The same applies to Obama.
I have seen this myself when I pay attention to who he has appointed to key positions and the opinion of world leaders and foreign nations towards Obama and the United States. Despite his continued participation in Afghanistan (which I still consider necessary) and Iraq (which I think we should be already pulling out of), world opinion remains very positive towards Obama and the US. Obama turned international opinion around within months of taking office. Given the fact that many critical things from the war on terrorists to stopping piracy near Indonesia and Somalia to global warming will require international cooperation, Obama's healing of the many rifts Bush created is huge.
Also looking at the EPA we quickly went from a demoralized, do-nothing EPA caused by years of Bush neglect and active discouragement, to one that has rapidly re-started regulation of corporations and cleaning up of toxic waste sites. I watched as Bush literally stopped almost all EPA regulation of corporations (while massively increasing their scrutiny of scientific research facilities). Obama has brought the EPA back to what they are supposed to do. I witnessed this return myself as well as the EPA, against the wishes of local developers and their pet politicians like Bloomberg, declared the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn a Superfund site and has started the clean up process. Much as I don't like having a Superfund site a mere 4 blocks away from my home, this was a necessary step to clean up the mess of decades of industrial mismanagement. This would never have happened under Bush. The developer and Bloomberg would have gotten their way and the polluted, smelly banks of the Gowanus Canal would be built up in no time with only superficial clean up.
Changes like these do not reach the radar of most people, but they are genuinely significant. As significant as having a Public Option? Maybe...maybe not. But still significant.
Obama's choices for the Supreme Court are also indicative. Neither Kagan nor Sotomayor would be exactly what a progressive would like to see. And both worried me when first announced. But in each case I saw what Obama was doing. Both are brilliant and very thoughtful people who understand the complexities of the law. Both are conservatives in some ways that make it extremely hard for conservatives to oppose without looking like complete hypocrites. But both are also extremely liberal and mostly social libertarian on key issues. Kagan, for example, has stood up to tobacco companies and strongly defended gay rights and freedom of speech. Sure, my ideal choice for Supreme Court would be someone like NY Civil Rights lawyer Norman Siegel. But Kagan and Sotomayor are almost certainly more practical choices and I suspect progressives will in most circumstances be pleased with them. And even someone like Norman Siegel will do things we don't like. Keep in mind that the decision to treat corporate donations as covered by freedom of speech comes from the ACLU and is, ultimately, as progressive a position as the desire to regulate corporate donations. The complexities of the law that the Supreme Court almost by definition has to handle with every case before them will make for tough decisions and although Kagan and Sotomayor are not as liberal as I would like, I am confident they will face the complexities with intelligence, compassion and care...something that conservative extremists like Scalia and Thomas are incapable of.
The New York Times has done a similar analysis of the Obama administration and come to a similar conclusion: somewhat under everyone's radar, the Obama administration has brought some serious change to Washington. Now the NYT is, to put it mildly, corportist, so what they see as major change may not be quite so impressive to a genuine progressive, but nevertheless, their analysis is worth reading. From the NYT:
With the Senate’s passage of financial regulation, Congress and the White House have completed 16 months of activity that rival any other since the New Deal in scope or ambition. Like the Reagan Revolution or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the new progressive period has the makings of a generational shift in how Washington operates.
First came a stimulus bill that, while aimed mainly at ending a deep recession, also set out to remake the nation’s educational system and vastly expand scientific research. Then President Obama signed a health care bill that was the biggest expansion of the safety net in 40 years. And now Congress is in the final stages of a bill that would tighten Wall Street’s rules and probably shrink its profit margins.
If there is a theme to all this, it has been to try to lift economic growth while also reducing income inequality. Growth in the decade that just ended was the slowest in the post-World War II era, while inequality has been rising for most of the last 35 years.
What was striking me about this is the long-term emphasis. Obama is looking decades down the road, something very few politicians are capable or willing to do. But, the reason few politicians are willing to do this is because it makes for bad politics even though it is good policy. And the NYT says this as well:
Already, though, one downside to the legislative spurt does seem clear. By focusing on long-term problems, Mr. Obama and the Democrats have given less than their full attention to the economy’s current weakness and turned off a good number of voters.
The NYT also recognizes the limits to the changes Obama has brought, somewhat recognizing the disappointment among progressives:
The recent period surely will not match the impact of the New Deal. Nothing is likely to, notes David Kennedy,a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, because the New Deal created much of the modern American government. “These are not as dramatic as the foundational moments,” Mr. Kennedy said, “but they’re significant changes.”
Alan Brinkley, a historian of the Depression, added: “This is not the New Deal, but it’s a significant series of achievements. And given the difficulty of getting anything done under the gridlock of Congress, it’s pretty surprising.”
And, buried in the article I think are the key points, both covering the wonderful significance of Obama's policies as well as their disappointing limitations:
Mr. Obama has been trying to reverse the Reagan thrust in some important ways. Although the Reagan administration did not shrink the size of the federal government, it changed the ways that Washington collected and spent its money, by reducing taxes on the affluent, cutting some social programs and increasing military spending...
For all these differences, though, there are also ways that Mr. Obama and today’s Democrats have accepted, and are even furthering, the Reagan project. They are not trying to raise tax rates on the affluent to anywhere near their pre-1981 levels. Their health bill tried created new private insurance markets, not expand Medicare.
So what does this mean for progressives like you and me? Well, one thing I think is key about Obama is he is a brilliant tactician as well as strategist. One of his basic assumptions has been the need to get things through a basically conservative, mediocre Congress requires compromise and some major concessions to Reagan ideology. Clinton made these same assumptions after his initial months proved disastrous with very real reforms to issues like heathcare reform and removing the ban to gays in the military were killed by Democrats as much as Republicans. Obama has avoided such disasters by basically adopting Clinton-style compromise BEFORE overreaching the possibilities of what can pass Congress. What we need for Obama to take more risks is to get rid of some of the obstructionists in Congress (from both parties) and electing more people like Al Franken and Alan Grayson.
The primary elections this last week sent a strong message to Obama and Washington. It sent the message that voters want more significant change than people like Blanche Lincoln and Arlan Specter have been willing to accept. I don't think most Democrats in Congress or the DNC or DSCC or DCCC understand this message. But I think Obama does.
We need to elect Joe Sestak to the Senate. We need to elect Bill Halter to the Senate. We need to elect Jim Conway to the Senate. We need to elect Robin Carnahan to the Senate. We need to elect Paul Hodes to the Senate. We need to elect Kendrick Meek to the Senate. Each of these will bring someone more progressive to the Senate, though none of them are Al Frankens. But they each will replace an obstructionist Democrat or Republican with a less obstructionist Democrat. The more of these battles we win, the more that can get through the obstructed sphincter that is the current Senate and it is that sphincter that has blocked a great deal of change that America needs. Getting more progressives elected to the House is important too (e.g. Regina Thomas would be an excellent replacement for an obstructionist Democrat from Georgia and Lois Herr would be an excellent replacement for an obstructionist Republican from Pennsylvania) but the Senate is the most obstructed branch of our government right now.
If you want to choose one race to focus on for now, it would have to be Bill Halter's race for the Senate. Defeating Blanche Lincoln in the primary runoff and then helping win the general in November will send a very, very clear message to both parties that change is what voters want. I predict that if Halter wins, you will see Obama take more risks to get a progressive agenda through and you will see many Republicans back off just a bit from obstructionism. Republicans will remain the Party of No, but you will see more dissident Republicans who will back off from the mantra of "No you can't."
You can help clear out the obstruction blocking change in Congress by donating through my Top Races of 2010 or my Healthcare4America Act Blue sites (the former is more strategic and cautious, the second is more idealistic and optimistic). Other pages you might consider donating through are VoteVets.com's page highlighting Sestak and Trivendi in Pennsylvania. Trivendi is among the strongest advocates for healthcare reform currently running for Congress. There is also the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's page covering some key primaries.
So keep up the fight, folks. I believe Obama has done more than he gets credit for, but I also believe that Congress, particularly the Senate, has limited the pace of progress. If Progressives keep up the momentum that we saw earlier this week, we will see after November a MORE progressive Congress and, I suspect, Obama become more aggressive in fighting for change.