Affectionate Jousting with Michael Tomasky

My good friend Michael Tomasky has a blog over at The Guardian...

I consider it what he called it in his subject line--an "affectionate
joust." (Mike is an ace former Nation intern, a longtime friend, a
brilliant writer and not-frequent-enough-in-my-view Nation contributor.)
In his blog he takes on (some of) my comments on MSNBC's Ed Schultz
show last night. (A little friendly cherry-picking, Mike!) I don't
disagree with much of what Mike writes. My first reflex is certainly not
to blame Obama. (See my column on "Obama, One Year On"--posted below, for more on why I think progressives would be wise to avoid reflexive
criticism.) But I do think President Obama could step forward at this
time, challenge lobbyists more directly, speak out more forcefully about
the cruel Stupak language, call out self-righteous egotists like Joe
Lieberman, demand some party unity on a bill that will define not only
the Democratic party's future in 2010--but for a long while. And why
not bring in LBJ? Sure history by analogy is often imperfect, but there
are also lessons to be drawn from models of Presidential leadership.

What I did refer to on the Schultz show (in a 3 minute segment!) and
what Mike fails to mention--is the desperate need for structural reform
of a dysfunctional and increasingly anti-democratic body. (That would be
the Senate) Here we agree. Mike writes that we need process reform of
Congress--a grassroots movement to do away with the filibuster, for
example. The Nation has been championing this critical reform for
decades--most recently with must-read pieces by Thomas Geogeghan,
William Greider and Chris Hayes. I also had the cojones to write an 8000 word essay--"Just Democracy"--in
July 2008 which focused on the filibuster and laid out a passel of
other pro-democracy reforms which groups like FairVote and Public
Campaign have championed for many years.

And in a column I wrote on the first anniversary of Obama's
election--taking stock of what has and hasn't been accomplished,
disappointments and hopeful steps--I point to structural obstacles.
Hell,I know one election isn't going to solve all of our problems. I
post that column below, and hope Mike will link to it, because he must
know that real short television segments do not do justice to the
complexity of our arguments and ideas. That's why my job is to edit this

Obama, One Year On

By Katrina vanden Heuvel

This article appeared in the November 23, 2009 edition of The Nation.

Barack Obama was elected president at a time defined by hope and fear in
equal measure. It was a remarkable moment in our country's history--a
milestone in America's scarred racial landscape and a victory for the
forces of decency, diversity and tolerance. For the first time in
decades, electoral politics became a vehicle for raising expectations
and spreading hope while it mobilized millions of new voters. Obama's
was a campaign built on the power and promise of change from below. At
the same time, he was elected as the nation was rapidly sinking into the
worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The night Obama was elected, relief was felt around the world. There was
a widespread feeling that the United States had turned its back on eight
years of destructive, swaggering unilateralism and was re-embracing the
global community. In many ways, the election was a referendum on an
extremist conservatism that has guided (and deformed) American politics
and society since the 1980s. The spectacular failures of the Bush
administration and the shifts in public opinion on the economy and the
Iraq War presented a mandate for bold action and a historic opportunity
for a progressive governing agenda.

A year later, it's clear we are a long way from building a new order and
reshaping the prevailing paradigm of American politics. That will take
more than one election. It requires continued mobilization, strategic
creativity and, yes, audacity on the part of independent thinkers,
activists and organizers. The structural obstacles to change are
considerable. But at least we now have the political space to push for
far-reaching reforms.

Whatever one thinks of Obama's policy on any specific issue, he is
clearly a reform president committed to the improvement of people's
lives and to the renewal and reconstruction of America. Yes, his
economic recovery plan was too small and too deferential to the
Republican Party and tax cuts. But it has kept the economy from falling
into the abyss, and it includes more new net public investment in
antipoverty measures than any program since Lyndon Johnson's Great

We need a much more robust jobs program--without one, Americans will not
believe this president stands with the working people. Obama would be
wise to use his presidential pulpit and brilliant oratorical skills to
explain that when one out of six Americans is unemployed or
underemployed, our greatest fear should be joblessness, not deficits.

Still, there's much to be praised. Obama has spoken eloquently of a new
and progressive role for government. His first appointment to the
Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, was a strong choice--the first Latina on
the Court and a powerful progressive jurist. In selecting Sotomayor,
Obama has finally halted the Court's long drift to the right. The
president says the labor movement is the solution, not the problem. (If
he really believes this, he should act on it by pushing for speedy
passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.) He has reinvigorated the
regulatory agencies in Washington, from the EPA to the FCC (in doing so
he has, ironically, fueled a full-employment program for K Street
lobbyists). He has repealed the global gag rule on abortion, has spoken
of the urgency of the climate crisis and has restored integrity to the
government's scientific research programs.

The president's quartet of major speeches abroad--in Cairo, Prague,
Moscow and Accra--began to lay out an Obama Doctrine in international
affairs: support for diplomacy and the UN; commitment to a nuclear-free
world; a belief that democracy is strengthened not through US
intervention but when people win for themselves their rights and
liberties; and engagement and cooperation with, rather than antagonism
toward, the Muslim world. However, the military-industrial complex
Eisenhower warned against grows ever stronger. And so far Obama has been
unwilling to rethink skewed priorities in this arena; he just approved a
bloated military budget despite his rare cancellation of several costly
weapons programs.

And then, of course, there is Afghanistan. Historians have warned that
wars kill reform presidencies. The most recent, and perhaps most
relevant, example is the Vietnam War's undermining of the Great Society.
Obama is wisely taking his time to make a decision about Afghanistan,
but he appears to have excluded the one option that makes the most
sense--a responsible exit strategy--and seems poised to escalate this
unnecessary war. If he does so, he will endanger his reform presidency
and squander funds needed to rebuild and renew our country.

Obama could have used the moment of economic crisis to restructure the
economy and rein in the financial sector, not simply resuscitate it. The
taxpayer-funded bailout of the banks has contributed to a popular
backlash. If Obama doesn't respond to the widespread anguish and anger
with constructive support for those in need, the GOP will continue to
channel it in destructive directions.

There are other disappointments. I am sure you have your list. At the
top of mine is Obama's failure to end the excesses and abuses associated
with the Bush/Cheney national security apparatus; also on it is his
unwillingness to push more strongly for a public option on healthcare
reform. But instead of playing the betrayal sweepstakes, which promotes
disappointment and despair, we'd be smart to practice a progressive
politics defined by realistic hope and pragmatism. That is, simply
denouncing the administration's missteps and failures doesn't get us
very far and furthers what our adversaries seek: our disempowerment. We
can't afford that. These are times to avoid falling into either of two
extremes: reflexively defensive or reflexively critical.

Remember that throughout our history, it has taken large-scale,
sustained organizing to win structural change. There would have been no
New Deal without the vast upsurge in union activism and unemployed
councils, no civil rights legislation without the mass movement. We need
to learn from those inspiring examples and build our own movements. And
we need to start playing inside-outside politics too: engage the
administration and Congress, even as we push without apology for bolder
solutions than the ones Obama has offered.

Progressives should focus less on the limits of the Obama agenda and
more on the possibilities that his presidency opens up. Like all
presidents, Obama is constrained by powerful opponents and deep
structural impediments. Independent organizing and savvy
coalition-building will be critical in overcoming the timid
incrementalists of his own party and the forces of money and
establishment power that are obstacles to change. But if we work
effectively, we can push Obama beyond the limits of his own politics and
create a new progressive era.

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