Obama's First Year: It Ain't No Crystal Staircase

News & Politics

Well, son, I'll tell you:

Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

It's had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor --


But all the time

I'se been a-climbin' on,

And reachin' landin's,

And turnin' corners...

- Langston Hughes

Barack Obama is a leader of great capacities and great contradictions. Perhaps the measure of his capacities is the magnitude of his contractions. He is a man of exceptional grace. But the grace misleads; this is a politician of intense ambition, discipline and grit. He understands and wields the power of the word. But his soaring oratory misleads, for his temperament is moderate; his predilection is for compromise. He rouses a new generation to politics, but prefers to cut the deals in the backrooms. He calls us to a new direction, then staffs his administration's team with the acolytes of the old ideas he scorns.

One year is too soon to measure a president or assess an administration. Hell, this administration has less than half of its political appointees in place. But here in brief are six propositions on Barack Obama's first year:

1. This is the most progressive president since Lyndon Johnson.

His election ushered in what could be the greatest era for progressive reform since the 1960s. After fighting for years simply to stave off further horrors, we're now fighting over how to get to comprehensive health care, how to address global warming, calling the world to move towards nuclear disarmament. It is a big difference and should not be ignored.

Obama leads this wave. Listen to the music of the administration. Time and time again, on the economy, on civil rights, on disarmament - Barack Obama sounds a transformative call. His soaring words show us that another world is possible. The hard slog of his first months reveals just how hard it will be to get there. This ain't no crystal staircase.

2. This president seeks to do big things.

This isn't Bill Clinton running on school uniforms and TV monitors. Defying conventional wisdom, in his first year, Obama summoned the country and the Congress to address challenges that can no longer be ignored: a recovery act to stave of potential depression, comprehensive health care reform, progress on climate change, financial reform, new engagement with the world, and yet to come - immigration reform, empowering workers, and more. Powerful interests are challenged. The arguments are brutal. But the stakes are at least worth the game.

3. He is a man of the establishment, not the left.

Barack Obama is an establishment reformer, not, despite the ravings of Rush and Beck, a radical in any way. To a remarkable degree, Obama has chosen not to include leading progressives in his administration. Foreign policy is transformed, but only from the lunacy of the neocons to the "realism" of the national security mandarins. Economic policy is rescued from conservative supply side quackery, but entrusted to the dubious aegis of Bob Rubin and Goldman Sachs protégés. Not surprisingly, the populist outrage of Americans at the arrogance of Wall Street barons profiting from the taxpayers' bailout caught this administration by surprise.

4. He is weakened by his moderation, not his boldness.

The president is chided for having tried to do too much. Progressives are told that our disappointments come from exaggerated expectations. In fact, the reality is somewhat different. His accomplishments far exceed the expectations of the beltway chattering classes but fail to meet the needs of the moment.

His accomplishments in one year are impressive. A recovery package that helped stave off a depression, a bold first budget with new priorities; the largest aid to the poor since the 1960s built into the stimulus, a transformation of our relations abroad, and much more. Yet the successes are outstripped by the country's needs dictated by grim reality. The stimulus was too small; unemployment continues to rise. The banking bailout left Wall Street more concentrated and less accountable. The energy bill will not catch America up with the allies on global warming, much less seize the opportunity of leading the green industrial revolution.

The health care bill may generate a storm of protest not because it costs too much to government, but it isn't affordable to those families and individuals required to buy insurance. He personally calls a halt to the march into Afghanistan, but a moderate response, giving the generals more troops but fewer than they want, won't keep us from wading ever deeper into the muck.

5. He deserves a progressive movement that is more independent, and less obedient.

Obama's remarkable leadership inspired millions. New activists, new resources, new energy - all roused by the hope he has engendered. The administration, not surprisingly, has sought to discipline this energy, to channel it into support for its agenda. But with his agenda delayed by entrenched lobbyists and diluted by compromised Democrats, the president would have been better served by independent movements demanding far bolder change from the White House, challenging those in both parties standing in the way, exposing and confronting the lobbyists and the clubbable legislators, mobilizing outside populist anger to counter inside establishment dealing. The mobilization around the "public option" on health care, when Max Baucus, the insurance lobby and the White House were ready to discard it, shows the potential. The populist challenge to this administration should not be abandoned to the crackpot right. Roosevelt had a disputatious left, an aroused labor movement; Johnson had the Civil Rights movement; Obama deserves a movement that will march on him, not just with him.

6. It ain't over; it's only just begun.

The crisis that the president inherited continues. The administration is still finding its legs. Democrats haven't adjusted to the power that they now wield. Progressives are only beginning to challenge the limits of the current debate. The gulf between the president's vision and his administration's reality continues to grow. Will that gulf be deepened by Washington's potent, permanent status quo - the corporate lobbies, the establishment's convention, the national security apparatus, exerting ever greater power, with the president's enemies emboldened; his supporters discouraged; the public dismayed? Or will it be overcome by renewed purpose, greater mobilization, the democracy overwhelming the interests.

Obama will increasingly have to choose - whether to hold to his vision and raise the stakes, or compromise his vision to cut the deal. And those of us whom he has inspired also have to choose. Whether to sit back and hope he does the right thing against the odds, growing cynical when he fails our expectations, or to stand up, mobilize, challenge the Congress and the President to get on with the change we need. The first year is but the opening scene. We should still have the audacity to hope, and the commitment to act.

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