Obama and The Progressive Movement

One day during the presidential transition, when I had been named
the liaison to the progressive community, someone observed to me that
"my people" didn't seem to be very happy. I responded that it was not
the job of the progressive movement to be happy.

I wasn't intending to be snarky. My point was that progressives' job
is to keep pushing, keep organizing, keep agitating, keep demanding
better things. Martin Luther King said that people kept asking him when
he would be satisfied, and he answered, we will never be satisfied
"until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty
stream."

It's the nature of our movement to never stop fighting for things to
get better, there are of course substantive issues where at least some
progressives are going to part ways with Obama. On foreign policy, the
most important areas of concern so far are leaving so many residual
forces in Iraq and expanding forces in Afghanistan without a clear
understanding of the overall strategy (including an exit plan). On the
economy, some of us remain extremely concerned about the
Geithner/Summers bank bailout strategy, which appears to be too much of
a continuation of the Paulson bailout strategy while giving banking
executives far too much leeway and far too little accountability. These
are not small issues.

Having said all that, though, I find myself walking around in a
little bit of shock that a president, at least on the central strategic
approach to the big policy issues, seems to be following the path I
would advocate.

In traveling all over the country promoting my new book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be,
I have been saying that the lesson of history is that Obama should
seize this opportunity to think very big and bold, to be transformative
in pushing to fundamentally re-structure our economy, our energy
system, our health system, and our very politics. And that is exactly
what President Obama is doing - no credit due to me or any other advice
given. He is just listening to his own remarkable political instincts.

Though the recent economic recovery bill was too small and had its
flaws, it was literally the biggest single investment in progressive
social capital - health care, public education, green jobs,
infrastructure, universal broadband - in history. His budget might well
be the most audacious and sweeping in progressive history as well -
certainly one that competes with LBJ's 1965 budget and FDR's 1935
budget. Obama is fulfilling his promise to the America people in the
2008 campaign: big, bold, truly transformative change.

Frankly, I didn't expect this would happen, at least not right away.
Watching him pick mostly centrists for cabinet positions, and knowing
how the DC establishment can use a thousand big and small reasons to
argue against transformative change, I feared that Obama would be
convinced to scale back his ambitions for what I call in The
Progressive Revolution a Big Change Moment, similar to ones we had in
the 1860s, early 1900s, 1930s, and the 1960s. Over the last few
decades, Democrats have adopted a culture of caution - they have tended
to think small and go slow. I feared that Obama would succumb to that
culture.

But he is rising to the challenge. And it is imperative that those
of us in the progressive movement rise with him. We shouldn't hesitate
to say where we disagree, especially on the big things like Iraq,
Afghanistan and the banking crisis. And we shouldn't hesitate to push
for the best possible policy details - to make sure that health care
reform really is universal and has a public plan option for people
being screwed by insurance companies, that the climate change policy
really is effective and tough in reducing carbon emissions ASAP, and
that the budget maximizes investment in the things that matter.

But we should be very clear: Obama has decided to cast his lot with
those of us who have been fighting for big, transformative change. If
he succeeds, we succeed, and if he fails, we fail - and we fail for at
least another generation, because no Democrat will take big risks again
for a very long time if Obama loses this gamble.

2009 is the year. This is the moment when progressives, and America,
show whether we can live up to the heroes of our history. Progressives
in the past have ended slavery and Jim Crow, given women and minorities
and the poor the right to vote, created the National Parks System, made
dramatic improvements in cleaning up our air and water, and launched
transformational programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and
Head Start. Barack Obama has boldly announced his ambition to join
those historic heroes and create another Big Change Moment. This year
will decide whether Democrats in Congress and the progressive movement
can help him deliver on that noble ambition. Seize the day.