4 Steps For Creating the Obama Revolution: Will the President Take Them?
Photo Credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza
Since the election, it’s been made abundantly clear that the Republicans have been their own worst enemy, clinging ever more tightly their base voters -- the xenophobic, guns-and-religion, “Leave It to Beaver” nostalgists -- to the increasing exclusion of everyone else. It’s been 30 years since the Reagan Revolution heralded the GOP’s rightward shift; like every revolution that has run its course, Reagan’s shows a tendency toward fratricide.
As the base grows more extreme, reasonable, moderate Republicans are finding the party no longer represents them. As Princess Leia said of the Empire: “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich shows how Obama’s election and reelection have exposed and expanded the Republican Party’s fissures, signaling, perhaps, the demise of the Reagan Revolution. Even as progressives oppose the Reagan Revolution’s policies, one should admire, as a matter of political science, that it was able to replace the accepted wisdom of political compromise nearly wholesale with its own unyielding doctrine.
Obama now finds himself positioned to replace today’s Reagan-inspired conventional wisdom -- three decades of nearly unquestioned belief that deregulating industry would lead to innovation and prosperity for all; that lowering taxes on the wealthy would spur investment and create a thriving economy where jobs would sprout like mushrooms; and that diversity is a threat to social harmony -- with a revolutionary, progressive legacy.
Here are four steps President Obama can take to plant the seeds for the Obama Revolution -- one that sets a new, progressive course for political dynamics in the country.
1. Hold wrongdoers accountable. We are a nation of laws, we’re told. Equal justice before law is a central tenet of our society. No one is above the law.
If you believe in these tenets, the events of the last four years raise a stinging catch in your throat. Because what we’ve seen is that there are different rules for the powerful than for the rest of us. If you rob a bank, you go to prison. If a bank robs you, it pays a fine (maybe). Torture and kill your neighbor, you die on a gurney with a state-sponsored doctor sticking a needle in your arm. Authorize the torture and/or deaths of dozens of defenseless captives, and you get a state-sponsored pension. And as Matt Taibbi points out in Rolling Stone, if you get caught with a bag of weed, you’re going to jail. But launder hundreds of millions of dollars in drug-cartel blood money, and you’ll have to wait to get part of your bonus check.
This is, quite simply, unacceptable.
How can citizens have faith in a country with such widely disparate treatment of street crime and white-collar crime, where the rich and powerful get a pass because their crimes are simply too big? It breeds cynicism and distrust, making the very notion that “we’re all in this together” insulting.
There’s an opportunity to change that. Lanny Breuer, the Justice Department’s top prosecutor, announced he’s leaving the department after prosecuting precisely zero bank executives for their role in driving the world’s economy to the brink of collapse. It may be just a coincidence, but the announcement came shortly after PBS’s “Frontline” aired a documentary showing just how much evidence was available to bring criminal charges, and highlighting Breuer’s spoken fears of the consequences prosecution might have for the banks. (Can you imagine a D.A. questioning how other people might be impacted by putting a low-level drug peddler in jail?) It rightly sparked outrage.
The president now has the opportunity to harness that outrage and get somebody into the position who is actually prepared and willing to hold Wall Street criminals accountable for their misdeeds, for which millions of Americans are still paying a heavy penalty. Despite Breuer’s protestations, proving fraud is not especially difficult when banks create and sell investments to customers, touting them as solid and reliable, while setting themselves up to profit from the failure of those same investments.
In 2008, candidate Obama pledged to help working families who had just lost their savings and home equity to the pirates of Wall Street, promising, “We can bring a new era of responsibility and accountability to Wall Street and to Washington. … [W]e can restore confidence - confidence in America, confidence in our economy, and confidence in ourselves.”
For four years, the American people have been waiting for someone -- anyone -- at the top levels of the banking world, who made unfathomable personal fortunes at their expense, to bear responsibility for the crimes they committed, and to be held to account. If President Obama wants to restore public confidence, making that happen would be a very good way to do it.
2. Build a popular movement. Polling repeatedly shows that voters support progressive programs and ideals when pejorative labels are removed. So it’s no surprise that the president’s inaugural address, which alarmed so many professional pearl-clutchers of the punditocracy with its unabashedly liberal rhetoric, resounded with much of the public.
Campaigning in 2012, President Obama promised that he would make improving the lot of the perennially put-upon middle class a priority in his second term. There is a lot standing in the way of making good on it, but the middle class, and the rest of the public, needs it to come true. The best way to do so, and rally the people to his side, is to launch a major jobs initiative.
With unemployment still stuck around 8 percent, pretty much everyone in the country who isn’t out of work knows someone who is, and/or lives in desperate fear that they could be canned at any moment. Putting unemployed people back to work, putting money in their pockets to buy groceries, clothing and shelter for their families, is a sure way to improve not only their lives, but also their communities. Increasing demand for goods and services means more jobs for the businesses that provide them.
Despite the Obama-haters’ heartfelt falsehood that the stimulus failed, government spending can create and sustain job growth. And as Obama and others have been saying for years, the nation’s vital infrastructure is in desperate need of a rebuild. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, making that investment improves long-term economic recovery, while ignoring the need could cost trillions.
In his extensive interview with The New Republic, President Obama said he was going to communicate better with the American people. He also said he hoped the Republicans in Congress would be less rigid and dogmatic and start acting for the good of the country, rather than political calculation. Since there is no corner of the country that doesn’t have a pressing need for a touch-up on highways, bridges and other necessities of commerce, the president would be wise to take this message directly to the people, that create jobs now is investing not only in more security for working families today, but in the long-term economic health of the nation.
And if his adversaries in the GOP aren’t interested in making those investments, let them explain to their constituents why their present economic straits and their children’s financial futures are not worthy of the effort.
3. Build a bench. Like it or not, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the Reagan Revolution was its longevity. Like the Gipper himself, the political movement he helped create held sway long after it was clear it wasn’t making a whole lot of sense.
An important step in building the lasting movement was creating a pithy, memorable rallying cry that encapsulates the movement’s core principles.
Conservatives had for years been decrying Roosevelt’s legacy of a strong federal government and regulatory oversight. But it was Reagan, in the midst of the late ‘70s economic doldrums and malaise, who told Americans that government cannot solve our problems, “Government is the problem.” In that five-second soundbite, he captured the ethos of the revolution that bore his name.
Obama has yet to do that. The “Hope” and “Change” of his 2008 campaign became something of a punchline, as recovery from the recession slogged against a tide of Republican obstruction and corporate indifference. (Does anyone who voted for him not cringe with every repetition of Sarah Palin’s smug, “How’s that hope-y, change-y stuff workin’ out for ya?” Vague ideals do not a movement make.
The president made some efforts at defining his goals in his second inaugural address. The Seneca/Selma/Stonewall line was a nice rhetorical flourish on inclusivity and tolerance. He spoke again, in much less clumsy terms, about the myth that the rich got that way on their own, talking about the social investment in the means of commerce. And he took a subtle but clear jab at Paul Ryan and other Ayn Rand devotees by reminding them that Social Security, Medicare and other earned benefits do not make us undeserving “takers.” (This last bit was effective, given how Rand was quick to—dishonestly—defend himself against it.)
But what Obama really needs is a defining statement about what it means to be a pragmatic progressive in the 21st century. Perhaps it’s something as simple as “We have to do better than this.”
Beyond creating the defining ethos, Obama and his team need to build a bench. Reagan had his movementarians, true believers like Jack Kemp and Phil Gramm in Congress, Grover Norquist in think tanks, academics like Alan Greenspan, and thought leaders housed in movement media. Obama has no such support network to speak of. Instead, he has surrounded himself with the usual suspects from business and government. If he wants change, he needs to make it happen.
And there are plenty of candidates waiting in the wings. There are vocal, charismatic Progressive leaders-to-be in both houses of Congress, like Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla. The Center for American Progress is the capstone of a wide web of organizations working to provide policy arguments for an economically strong and more just society. Academics like Paul Krugman (whose predictions are so consistently accurate, he’s the closest thing the talking-head world comes to a sure bet) are providing the analytical basis for a progressive agenda. Liberal media is a small but thriving outpost. The framework is there.
If Obama wants to build upon it, he needs to identify the players who have the skills and will to bring his case—the progressive case—to the people. If his formidable campaign machine were to turn its efforts to creating a movement behind something more than a single candidate in a single election, there is real potential for impact. His campaign’s conversion from “Obama for America” to “Organizing for Action” could provide that impetus -- but only if the investment is serious and sustained.
4. Fight back. The Sandy Hook massacre seems to have put some steel into the president’s will. After so many other bloodbaths caused by demented gunmen, Obama played his role of consoler-in-chief with candor and compassion, but nothing much changed. This time, with 20 young children among the dead, the vast majority of the country knew action must be taken. So Obama did, without waiting to build consensus among the political establishment.
It’s often said that the president is a deliberator, willing to think things through and find middle ground that avoids conflict. But that strategy hurt him in his first term, as conservatives dug in their heels and waited for him to cave, while his supporters resigned themselves to awaiting the moment when he would give up the prize without any apparent fight.
In the wake of Sandy Hook, there was no pre-emptive concession. Despite the howls from gun fetishists about repression and overreach, this is how it needed to be. And the president earned real street cred.
We need more of that.
Reagan’s revolution was borne out as much by his personal appeal as it was by his policies. His “conviction” is part of his mythos—the facts about his antipathy to deficits, big government and taxes are somewhat different, but the myth stands.
Obama has shown that he can talk the talk; now is the moment he must walk the walk. He needs to do so publicly, and challenge his detractors to prove him wrong. Part of his pledge to be more communicative with the people should include a public stand for honest debate, and one that takes on lies and distortions directly and openly. He need look no further than his campaign debates—in the first, Mitt Romney mopped the floor with Obama by weaving a fabric of fantasy and misrepresentation. After the Republican made a race out of what had been a comfortable stroll, Obama’s camp never again let a lie go unanswered. That, as much as anything in the campaign’s highly effective ground game, assured the president’s reelection.
The American people love a fighter. As tragi-comic as W’s administration was, its swagger and confidence swayed public opinion. Disagree with his policies -- and you’d be well justified -- but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s certitude is what makes him an early favorite for the 2016 GOP nomination. As President Clinton famously said: “When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody who's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right.”
Bravado obviously is not enough to make a good leader, particularly in times as uncertain as these. But if No-Drama Obama doesn’t approach his second term with a clear-eyed, take-on-all-comers attitude, we’ll see more obstruction, more gridlock, and less progress in digging ourselves out of this mess. And working Americans, who Obama pledged to help, will suffer.
Now, get it done
Whether progressive disappointment with President Obama’s first term is justified or not (and in many ways, it is), he is the charismatic leader best positioned to create a new revolution, one that appeals broadly to Americans’ belief in fairness, shared responsibility, and compassion. If he’s interested in cementing his position in history as a transformative figure, he can do so by relegating the politics of resentment, division, greed and privilege to the dustbin of history. If that causes the Republican Party’s “annihilation,” so be it.