In Denver, progressives gathered to discuss what they expect from him. From our October issue.
(This article appeared in the October 2008 issue of The American Spectator.)
ON A HOT AUGUST DAY in Denver, just a few hours before a vote at the Pepsi Center made Sen. Barack Obama the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, liberal activists gathered less than two miles away at the Central Presbyterian Church for a forum on economic justice and ending global poverty.
A man strummed on an acoustic guitar inside the sanctuary, which was temporarily decorated with anti-war and pro-impeachment banners, all helping to make the facility live up to its name: Progressive Central.
“I think we can be on the edge of an era in this country of bold, dramatic change equal to the Great Society and the New Deal,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) declared during the session that followed, as the scraggly bearded actor and activist Sean Penn listened from one of the pews toward the back. “We’re going to need people with the mindset to do big things. Ending poverty is not a tiny matter — it’s a big thing. Universal health care is a big thing. Making sure we eliminate hunger in this country is a big thing. These are big, big, things. They require big solutions. Not little baby steps, but big, bold, dramatic change.”
While prominent Democrats took to the airwaves to explain to the American people why they needed to elect Obama president, members of the party’s progressive wing were gathering throughout the Mile High City, and discussing how to make sure that once elected, Obama governs as a liberal.
With the Republican brand name badly damaged and Democrats
expected to make further gains in Congress, progressives see this
as a moment when the country is turning against conservatism,
giving them a rare opportunity to make the case for a radical set
of changes that would uproot the U.S. economic system and place
government at the center of people’s lives.
Over the course of the 20th century, there have been a number of Democratic presidents, but they have met with varying degrees of success when it came to actually advancing liberalism. While Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson greatly expanded the role of government in the economy, with a permanent legacy that included Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, Jimmy Carter proved too inept to enact such major changes. Bill Clinton, despite his political success, ultimately put his short-term political goals ahead of any liberal agenda, and eventually universal health care gave way to welfare reform.
AS THE Progressive Democrats of America gathered in the church for a five-day shadow convention, the popular blog DailyKos and several other liberal groups hosted progressive speakers in another venue blocks away from the convention, dubbed the Big Tent.
In a panel organized by Campaign for America’s Future, Robert Kuttner, co-founder of the American Prospect, spoke about his new book: Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency.
“It is increasingly clear to me that there are moments in American history where the crisis is so severe, that only radical change can achieve moderate ends…” Kuttner told the crowd assembled within the tent. “This is one of those moments.”
According to Kuttner’s account of history, the three transformational presidents — Abraham Lincoln, LBJ, and FDR — did not start out intending to make bold changes, but “became more radicalized in office” because of the existence of powerful “social movements.”
In Lincoln’s case, Kuttner argued, he started out wanting to save the Union but ended slavery under pressure from the abolitionists; FDR was initially opposed to deficits, public works, and deposit insurance, but was forced to embrace all three by the industrial labor movement; LBJ was a Southern moderate who signed the Civil Rights Act because of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists. The same will be true for Obama.
“Whether we get a progressive president, and whether that president governs as a progressive, is up to us,” Kuttner said.
Many progressives were reluctant to get behind Obama during the primary because he was seen as more moderate on some domestic policy issues than his rivals, Kuttner explained, but the existence of his massive movement and his potential to transcend party with moderate-sounding rhetoric made them give him a pass on the issues.
“But the time for giving him a pass is over,” Kuttner said of
Obama. “If he doesn’t understand that everything that needs to be
done for the economy is more radical than almost anything that
can be debated in polite company, he will neither be elected, nor
will he be a great president.”
Kuttner called for “bolder, gutsier programs,” including a “Roosevelt scale” re-regulation of financial markets.
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