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 poverty.
A man strummed on an acoustic guitar inside the sanctuary, which was temporarily decorated with antiwar 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 then 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 includes 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.
William McNary, the president of US Action, who spoke at a panel later that afternoon, said the next 10 years would be the most critical period in the history of the progressive movement. “Everybody’s talking about change,” McNary mused. “Are we gonna get real progressive change? Are we gonna get small change? Or are we gonna get chump change?”
Alan Charney, a program director for the same group, echoed the call, and described “The Next New Deal.”
Charney asserted that the prosperity Americans enjoyed in the aftermath of the New Deal was based on an economic “paradigm” that is now in crisis because of globalization, trade, corporate influence, and what he called new “social cleavages,” such as immigration.
“What we need is a new, a Next New Deal to rebuild our economy on a different foundation,” Charney said. Among the changes he advocated were more investment in college education, health care for all, “green” jobs, and an end to America’s dependence on fossil fuels.
“This is a transformational moment. They come along once in a generation, once in a lifetime,” he beamed. “When the mass movement is there, that will be the time when the political leadership will be forced to act.”
Along these lines, a number of issue-focused groups and coalitions have formed to push specific progressive causes, such as the Apollo Alliance for alternative energy and Health Care for America Now!
Obama himself has given mixed signals throughout his career—and especially during the presidential campaign—as to whether he’s a principled liberal or a slick politician who would compromise progressive ideals for short-term political gain.
In 2003, when Obama was still an obscure state legislator making a long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate, he was a proud progressive. In a lengthy questionnaire filled out that December for the staunch liberal Independent Voters of Illinois—Independent Precinct Organization, Obama vowed that as U.S. senator he would be “a champion for the progressive agenda” and boasted that he had “demonstrated the backbone and passion to really fight for progressive causes, even when the political winds are blowing in the other direction.”
That same year, Obama spoke at an AFL-CIO event and declared himself a “proponent of a single-payer universal health care plan,” which is a technical term for a socialized system in which government is the sole purchaser of health care. But during his presidential campaign he has stated that he would only support such a system “if we were starting from scratch.” On the other hand, Obama has conceded that his health care plan could incrementally lead to a single-payer system. A common complaint among progressives about Obama’s handling of the issue is that he hasn’t spoken about it much since the general election started—a criticism that is sharpest among Hillary Clinton loyalists.
During the Democratic primaries, Obama railed against the North America Free Trade Agreement, but in the general election, he cooled off, and said his prior anti-trade rhetoric was just an example of how political campaigns could get “overheated.” He also softened what was a firm 16-month timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq and backed away from his pledge to meet unconditionally with the leaders of hostile regimes within the first year of his administration (now he tends to talk in vague terms of “tough direct diplomacy”). He also reversed himself by supporting Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act legislation that granted immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the government even after vowing to filibuster any bill that included such a provision.
Barack Obama is not a progressive by any means,” said Tim Carpenter, the national director of Progressive Democrats of America. “We have no illusions. This is a guy who missed a key vote when it came to no strike on Iran. He missed the Kyl-Lieberman vote [designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group], he was very slow coming out against the war, and though he spoke out against it, he voted for every appropriation.”
Carpenter said that his group, which was founded in 2004, is mostly focused on organizing at the district-by-district level and electing progressive members of Congress, but would still work to get Obama elected.
“I think it’s safe to say we’re where conservatives were in ’64 with Goldwater,” he said. “Conservatives made a rational decision that they were going to stay within the party and they were not going to be afraid to lose based on the issues that united them as conservatives. We’re doing the same things as Democrats.”
Among the successes they already claim is that, for the first time, the Democratic Party’s platform adopted in Denver calls for guaranteed health care. Also, House Majority leader Steny Hoyer paid a visit to Progressive Central during the convention. “The Democratic leadership is becoming quite aware of what we’re up to,” Carpenter said.
For all their optimism, it’s worth pointing out that there are substantial differences between now and the other periods of transformational change in American political history. Both LBJ and FDR assumed office during times when the climate was far more suited for sweeping changes. Progressives can do all the talking they want about how the economy is in a state of severe crisis, but empirically, our current economic problems pale in comparison to what they were when FDR was elected in 1932. That year, the nation’s economy shrank by more than 13 percent and the unemployment rate was 23.6%; by contrast, the economy grew 3.3 percent in this year’s second quarter, while as of August the unemployment rate was 6.1%. LBJ assumed office in the wake of the tragic assassination of the beloved John F. Kennedy, and the outpouring of sympathy made it a lot easier for his successor to push legislation through Congress—and it didn’t hurt that at one point Democrats had 68 senators.
The biggest mistake progressives are making is to believe that the diminished prospects for the Republican Party this November mean that the conservative movement itself has been vanquished. But regardless of who wins this election, the network of conservative media, policy organizations, and activist groups will still be in a much stronger position to resist radical liberal reforms than their predecessors in the earlier eras of transformational progressive change.
Philip Klein is a reporter for The American Spectator.