How Do We Seize the Obama Moment?
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The Constricted Consensus
The great challenge for progressives is whether the energy and idealism unleashed by the Obama candidacy -- and the collapse of conservatism -- can expand the limits of the current debate. McCain promises merely more of the same bankrupt policies, but Obama's reform agenda is itself limited by a very constricted establishment consensus that is an obstacle to real change.
On national security, both candidates have pledged to increase the size of the military, adding billions to a bloated budget that already represents nearly half the world's military spending. Both assume America's role as globocop; neither suggests unraveling the US empire of military bases. Both seem intent on deepening the occupation of Afghanistan. Neither has dared to embrace the conservative RAND Corporation's conclusion that the very notion of a "war on terror" is counterproductive, and that aggressive intelligence and police cooperation should be the centerpiece of our strategy.
Obama has called for a second stimulus plan focused on new energy and rebuilding America, but he hasn't suggested anything like the major public initiatives -- the combination of public investment, revised global economic strategy, industrial policy and financial regulation -- that would be essential to get the real economy moving again while responding to the threat of catastrophic climate change.
Obama has made affordable healthcare for all a centerpiece of his agenda, but he has not addressed the unraveling of the private social contract once delivered through corporations and unions. It will take independent efforts to drive an economic bill of rights, from healthcare to pensions to Social Security to guaranteed paid vacation, in addition to paid sick days and family leave.
Obama laid out promising principles for financial reform in his Cooper Union speech in March, but he hasn't challenged the Wall Street bailout, nor has he mobilized support for policing the shadow banking system that has proved so destructive in its greed.
Obama defends liberal social reforms, but a serious war on poverty -- or an initiative to transform our brutal criminal system of injustice that is devastating the lives of young minority men -- is not yet on the agenda.
And while Obama is a former professor of constitutional law, he hasn't called for dismantling the imperial presidency. It will take independent efforts to reclaim for the Congress and the people the powers Bush has arrogated to the presidency.
This corrosive consensus reflects the entrenched power of the established order. It is enforced by aggressive lobbies -- the military-industrial complex, Wall Street, corporate interests -- and rationalized by well-upholstered house scholars. The establishment's strength is its ability to simply exclude alternatives from serious consideration.
After the first flurry of activity, an Obama administration may well realize that the dire condition of the country demands a far bolder agenda than what is now on the table. Progressives should recognize that an Obama administration would have no alternative but to be one of constant experimentation. We should embrace the best of the public-policy proposals that scholars are developing in our universities and think tanks. These ideas challenge limited assumptions about government and call for everything from dismantling our empire of military bases to curbing the imperial presidency, from passing progressive tax reforms to strengthening the public commons. Again, independent campaigning -- particularly regarding concerns not high on the national agenda -- will help lift issues into the mainstream.
Here it will be vital to sustain a reform infrastructure independent of the administration or the Democratic leadership in Congress. Progressives in the Senate and House, many grouped around the Progressive Caucus, can provide both leadership and a public forum for new ideas. Independent research institutes -- like the Institute for America's Future, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Economic Policy Institute and others -- can help think outside the establishment box. Progressive bloggers can track the limits of the debate and give new ideas greater visibility. Reform leaders at the state and local levels, coordinated by centers like the Progressive States Network, can champion legislation -- like paid sick days, mandated vacation minimums, early childhood education, tighter regulation of insurance companies, creative financing for energy conservation projects -- that will be a model for the national agenda. Grassroots organizing -- neighbor to neighbor, supported by the energy of the young, linked to national concerns -- will be essential if Obama's election is to generate thoroughgoing reform.
When John F. Kennedy was elected President, he too summoned a new generation into politics. While Kennedy's agenda was limited, the energy he unleashed helped build the civilizing movements of the following decades -- the antiwar, civil rights, women's, environmental and gay rights movements.
America now is very different from the America of the 1960s. Those movements, nurtured in the cradle of postwar prosperity, assumed the country could afford to be more just. This generation has grown up with much greater economic insecurity, is laden with debt and is struggling to find decent jobs. It faces an economy that cannot be sustained -- and must be transformed.
But once more a young and exciting candidate, seeking the presidency after a long and failed conservative era, can spark the hope and sense of possibility that carry far beyond his campaign platform. Progressives should be focusing less on the limits of the Obama agenda and more on the possibilities that a successful candidacy opens up.
As a former community organizer, Obama has taught that "real change comes from the bottom up." It comes about by "imagining and then fighting for and then working for -- struggling for -- what did not seem possible before." As President, he will face conflicting pressures, and undoubtedly he will carefully pick his fights. The movement that he has called into being will have little choice but to embrace his charge and mobilize across the country to achieve what "did not seem possible before."
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