Two previous recent postings explored the parameters and the prerequisites for a progressive second presidential term for Barack Obama. Each of those postings triggered three broad responses from a largely skeptical audience. One broad response, from conservative or libertarian bloggers, was that since progressive answers to America’s contemporary ills could only make those ills worse, the hope must be that Obama sets his face against them. A second broad response, from more radical bloggers, was that the underlying premise of the postings’ argument was entirely false: Obama is no progressive, and never will be, so the fears of the American Right can and will quickly be laid to rest. The third — with which I have much more sympathy — was that progressive or not, Obama as president has no choice but to govern in co-operation with a House of Representatives whose majority is actively anti-progressive — indeed is as reactionary a House majority as any we have known in modern times. Compromise will therefore inevitably be the order of the day, with progressive disappointment the unavoidable consequence and to think otherwise is simply to pipe-dream.
So in light of such responses, is it even worth exploring the possibility that the next four years could see the beginnings of a genuinely progressive New Deal for America?
Unrepentantly, I think the answer is still that it is — because futures are not only to be anticipated, they are also actively to be fought for and created. Ultimately time alone, of course, will tell us whether cautious progressive faith in the Obama Administration was or was not worth giving. But certain things are already becoming clear, things that point to where that activity (and that faith) now needs urgently to be directed.
The first is this: a genuine note of caution. From any Western European center-left perspective at least, what is happening here in the United States (or what might happen during this second term) will be at most both parochial and modest. Any European center-left party worth its salt knows it has two fundamental things to do. It has to move its whole economy away from any kind of Anglo-Saxon capitalism towards a more trust based welfare-capitalist one — towards one, that is, in which the power of business is to some degree balanced by the power of organized labor. And it has to use its years in office to strengthen that latter power: by bedding in rights to collectively bargain, by building strong welfare nets, by insisting upon socially responsible business practices, and by using public policy to guarantee a minimum degree of social equality. European center-left parties don’t always do that to the degree their supporters require, of course, but this president is not even going to try. Barack Obama is not about to turn himself into a European social democrat of a genuine kind, or America into some form of advanced welfare capitalism. I wish he was, but he is not! Newt Gingrich is quite wrong on that. So too is Charles Krauthammer. The United States will not be reset in the next four years in some Scandinavian or even Canadian fashion. Progressive change here in the United States will inevitably be much more modest than conservatives fear. The thing that progressives now have to work so hard to ensure is that those more modest and limited changes do indeed set the whole economy and society off in some center-left direction.
A second and related observation is this. The rights of workers to join trade unions and negotiate their terms and conditions of employment are so limited here in the United States, and the rights of working women in particular (to paid maternity leave, flexible working hours and adequate child care) are so few in number, that catching up in just small ways on these key rights could itself help to set in motion a longer and much-needed process of progressive economic and social change. We need to remember that there are more than political personalities at play in the Washington policy fight. Whole economic growth models hang in the balance too. The bankruptcy of the Reagan growth model based on business deregulation and growing income inequality was demonstrated beyond doubt by the financial crisis of 2008. That growth model is dead, no matter how hard and how often Republicans try to revive and resell it. In consequence, what we desperately need here in the United States is a new growth model, one in which the over-reaching power of Mighty Finance is systematically and substantially curbed: curbed by the strengthening of American-based manufacturing on the one side, and curbed by the empowerment of American labor on the other. That need is so overwhelming that this second Obama administration might yet inch us towards a better growth strategy simply by default: motivated to make the correct moves less by any progressive instincts which the Administration may or may not possess, and more by the growing realization in governing circles that such a re-balancing is America’s best hope of sustained growth and prosperity again. The task of progressives now must surely be to do everything possible to guarantee that such a shift in the direction of public policy actually occurs, and is then sustained.
Thirdly, there are just a few signs out there that things might be slightly more progressive this time round. The Administration is clearly determined to introduce comprehensive immigration reform and to tighten gun laws; and the president has recently spoken strongly in favor of trade union rights to organize and to collectively bargain. We don’t know yet whether these much-needed initiatives are harbingers of a new direction in policy, or merely ad hoc genuflections to passing popular pressure; and certainly the small detail of the fiscal cliff settlement gives genuine cause for concern. As the Biden-McConnell settlement made very clear, this Administration is still capable of folding a winning hand and may yet do so again. But there is a new toughness in the president’s opening negotiating stances these days that is both welcome and long overdue; and he is certainly on record as being unwilling to cave to Republican demands in the upcoming debt ceiling fight. Yet that fight is waiting in the wings — it is just two months away — and unless Barack Obama is prepared to break new constitutional ground by simply raising the debt ceiling by executive order, some new compromise will necessarily follow. In March, the Republicans will inevitably go after Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — urging deep cuts in each — and those cuts will come unless, before then, the president has persuaded a clear majority of the American people that a better way out of this impasse lies through progressive change: through such things as a new stimulus package paid for by deep cuts in military expenditure, the closing of corporate tax loopholes, and the belated creation of a strong public option to pull down excessive medical insurance costs.
That progressive counter-case is not what we are yet hearing in any detail from this White House as it prepares for its second term. Perhaps, privately, key Administration figures realize that the great strategic goal now before them must be the winning back of the House in 2014 — the defeating of a gerrymandered Republican House majority by re-mobilizing the ground game that so trounced Mitt Romney. But if they realize it privately, that realization has yet to surface publicly. To date the president still remains far too publicly wedded to the view that revenue increases need to be immediately matched by entitlement reductions. He remains too defensive on the importance of public spending for long-term economic growth and he remains too committed to the limited federal regulation of large-scale American business. Occasionally — as in Osawatomie last year — the president speaks of the need for a new and more progressive social contract in America, but so far he has yet to fill in the full details of what that new contract should be. Indeed throughout his re-election campaign, Barack Obama remained too focused on the issue of shared sacrifice by Americans as taxpayers and wage earners, too silent on the parallel need for a greater sharing of rights, income and power between Americans in the workplace.
The president regularly talks a populist rhetoric, but he has yet to deliver an effective progressive politics. It is now the job of every American liberal to urge him to bring rhetoric and policy together, and to critique him when he does not. This country desperately needs a progressive tidal wave in November 2014, and you don’t get tidal waves without first creating the headwind that drives them. It is time for that driving to begin. There is an Inaugural Address, a State of the Union, and a budget, all coming now in quick succession. Each will need to be watched for signs of fundamental re-framing. The president re-framed the gun law issue superbly by the quality of his address at Newtown. If he can do that vital job on something so horrific and so specific, let us hope he can do it too on something more structural and more general. America needs a new path. This president has the opportunity to set it. The question is: will he? I do hope so.
These arguments are developed more fully in David Coates, Pursuing the Progressive Case? Observing Obama in Real Time.