What Progressives Expect from Obama
Dear President Obama,
You would have lost the election but for your progressive base. For the second time in a row, we saved you. You gained traction in the long campaign only when you changed your tone to appeal to progressives.
The first time you secured a large electoral victory, you wasted it by turning against your own base, acting as if you’d never need us again. We came to your help a second time because we realized the much greater threat from Mitt Romney who would have set the clock back more than would have been tolerable.
Now that we—minorities, immigrants, Latinos, gays, women, the educated, the young, the unionized—have handed you this second big victory in a row, what will you do with it?
Will you squander it like the last time?
We don’t need big promises you can’t deliver on, but we don’t want you to compromise on fundamental liberal values. We don’t want you to tamp down the reawakened liberal spirit for the second cycle in a row. You crushed our spirits during the first three years of your presidency, and only the specter of the imminent victory of the far right mobilized the electorate you’d put into dormancy for much of your presidency.
Alas, your victory speech was a terrible start, anticlimactic after weeks of expectation.
The same militarism, jingoism, paeans to American exceptionalism, calls to duty and communitarianism and obligation. Where is the joy and optimism? Where is the vision? You repeat phrases like economic inequality and immigration reform and it sounds hollow, like you’re reading words without any real feeling.
As in your convention speech, you were dour and weighed down, surrounding yourself in a cloud of rhetoric, bending over backwards to praise the very forces of extremism whom we’ve just voted against in such a clear manner. George Romney? Did you have to thank him too?
It’s okay if you don’t accomplish much in the way of policy change. Your second term is an opportunity—a second opportunity—for you to reset the tone. Start changing the terms of discourse, get away from your lofty rhetoric and descend to the level of real people, set forth a vision for a more humane and compassionate America. That’s all we ask of you.
You chose to remain free of substance during your entire campaign—the victory speech being no exception. You’re focused on cutting a grand bargain with the Republicans on deficit reduction. And then if that goes through, putting forth an immigration reform plan. At least that’s what you’ve said.
Instead of cutting secretive bargains with a reactionary opposition party, how about bringing into political discourse the ideas that excite your electorate?
Here are some thoughts.
- You mention economic inequality. How about taking action on a living wage? Set a target, as long as it’s not something near the poverty level. Make the case that those who whine that a living wage has detrimental effects on employment are wrong. There is no better way to lift people out of poverty. It’s the one-percenters who propagandize that giving people enough money to live on makes us lose jobs and makes people indolent. Why not make this most sensible of ideas part of the discussion again?
- You’re conducting illegal drone attacks, extrajudicial killings, and torture and detention policies that are crimes against humanity. Mitt Romney was a worse danger on these fronts, but you make us ashamed to be Americans as long as these violations of human rights continue. How about illegal surveillance, informant-driven terrorist traps, and the odious provisions of the Patriot Act? Will you at last close Guantanamo? Will you resume civilian trials for alleged terrorists?
- Will you once and for all forgo the war on terror language? Will you say that the war’s active phase has been concluded, that there are no major new fronts, and that we can leave the rest of the world alone to carry on with its own business? Will you exit Pakistan? Will you negotiate with Iran rather than harass and torment it? Will you at last bring some sanity to the discourse on terrorism, though the political cost for you will be high?
- What kind of immigration reform bill will you present? Your 2010 plan was awful, more draconian by far than Bush’s 2006 and 2007 proposals. Very few undocumented people would have qualified under your plan. Your whole philosophy on immigration, even compared to Bush’s, is punitive. Will you get behind a humane plan like Congressman Gutierrez’s, which you didn’t deign to acknowledge in 2009? Or will you just propose something that gives you credit for immigration reform while creating misery and terror for millions of people?
- What will you do about student and homeowner debt? These are big brakes on the economy. Why can’t there be massive forgiveness for individuals who really need it if there can be forgiveness for big banks and corporations? Why can’t you go farther than incremental gestures, why can’t you offer dramatic help to homeowners to shore up the demand side of the economy?
- You became very good at bashing Romney for his one-percenter philosophy. Yet you seem to inhabit the same sanitized zone pervaded by donors and lobbyists. You’ve never offered the new majority an economic vision that’s exciting and optimistic and based on risk and innovation and openness. You may not be the one to start implementing such a forward-looking economic vision, because much of your time will continue to be spent shoring up the losses of recent years, but shouldn’t you start laying the groundwork for a new economic philosophy that goes beyond shades of protectionism and fear?
- You talk relentlessly about the middle class, as does Joe Biden and the rest of your party. Rarely do we hear about the poor. What will you do about drug laws and race-based imprisonment? What do you plan to do for what the other side likes to call the “underclass?” Should college be free? Should drugs be legalized? Should states focus on education and rehabilitation rather than imprisonment? You’re eager to have everyone enroll in a health industry driven by private insurers. But there doesn’t seem to be any policy for poverty, other than establishing standardized measurement in education. Will you use your megaphone to talk about poverty, rather than the mythical middle class you want to buffet from change?
- Finally, what about the root of political reactionism, the power of corporations and now individual rich people to buy politicians and elections? You’ve been the most prolific fundraiser politics has ever known. You’re compelled to play the game because you’re part of it, but shouldn’t you at some point—now that you have no more elections to contest—take a stand against the corruption of politics by big money? The democratic process itself is compromised. Your second term would be a great time to make an issue of this, bring it alive for succeeding years.
The canard is that we live in a center-right country. Yet the conservatives seem to have settled at an electoral vote ceiling well under 300, and falling. Colorado, Virginia, and Florida are becoming blue states, with North Carolina, Arizona, and others likely to follow soon. The new demographics should translate into a policy agenda going beyond tired old battles and wasteful populist rhetoric, otherwise voting and elections become meaningless.
We don’t expect miracles, and we don’t expect you to sacrifice yourself and your party on the altar of false expectations, especially when you’ll continue to be hemmed in by a relentlessly hostile opposition party. Yet returning the traces of liberal discourse to a country that has moved unimaginably to the right—so that contraception is on the line again, and torture has become a forgotten subject—is the most important thing you can do to pay back the people who elected you.
With deep sincerity,
Your New Electoral Majority