Obama 2.0

Obama 2.0 began on a far more progressive note than the president hit during his first four years in office.

During his inaugural address before several hundred thousand people on the Mall in the nation’s capital, President Barack Obama offered an unexpectedly full-throated defense of the best that liberalism has to offer. Built on a series of “we the peoples,” the speech declared that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

Americans, he said, “understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.  We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.  We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

He went on to defend the notion that “every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity” – provided by programs like Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.

“We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit,” he said. “But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. “

He also promised to address climate change and pass immigration reform, and he name-checked important moments in civil rights history – not just for African Americans, but for gays and women, as well.

But progressives should not pretend that the speech portends a sharp turn to the left for American domestic policy. Yes, the rhetoric was there – he spent more time on climate change in the speech than he had during his entire first term and gave shout outs to immigration reform and gay rights – but much of the agenda that he has set out is likely to die a nasty death in the House of Representatives.

The conventional wisdom is that presidents have about two months, maximum, to move their agendas forward, that the public loses interest after that and any mandate they may have won will wither.

“You hope and plan for a year, with the understanding that it could be several months less or several months more,” Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary, told the New York Times. “It does require having a step-by-step plan for the year because you have a finite amount of time.”

Lyndon Johnson is the offered as the prima facie case. He won his second term in a landslide and then moved quickly to pass truly transformative legislation, fearing that he only had a small window within which he could cash the political capital he had earned.

It is a faulty analogy, I think, one that ignores the impact that Johnson’s failed Vietnam War policies and the racist reaction to Johnson’s civil rights reforms had on his presidency. That the Obama-LBJ analogy was used in 2010 by Mark McKinnon in The Daily Beast to demonstrate the exact opposite point – that Obama was moving too quickly and would crash and burn just like LBJ – just underscores how faulty the analogy is.

LBJ’s goals and the America in which he hoped to meet them differ greatly from Obama’s goals and his times. The issues that Obama plans to pursue most aggressively – if we are to believe the agenda he alluded to in his inaugural speech and the polling – are far more accepted by the general public than the truly transformative legislation Johnson pushed through.

The other difference is the composition of Congress. LBJ was a Democrat, as were both houses of the 1964 Congress. That meant that LBJ could not use his bully pulpit to batter his Congressional opponents. Running against his own party at a time when he still harbored a desire to seek a second full term would have been political suicide. So, he had to strong-arm the legislation through quickly in a flurry of horse-traded legislation and could not go over Congress’ collective head the way Obama can.

Obama’s position is similar to Harry Truman in 1948, who ran his uphill re-election battle against the so-called “Do-Nothing Congress” and won. Obama, like Truman, has a recalcitrant Republican majority in Congress that has set as its prime mission the defeat of every initiative supported by the president – even those that originated with Republican policy makers. At the same time, Congress’ approval ratings are absurdly low – one poll has voters ranking Congress below

This is not new, of course. Congress has been reviled for years. The difference is that Obama no longer has to worry about his own political future. He can use the good will, massive mailing list and mighty campaign war chest to take on the 113th Congress. He can take Truman a step farther and both help bankroll and lend rhetorical and political support to a Democratic attempt to uproot the GOP majority in the 2014 election.

If he does that, if the campaign organization now in the process of morphing into an Obama-supporting Super PAC and organizing machine is turned loose in support of progressive Democrats and the goal of stealing back Congress from the GOP, then a progressive Obama agenda has a chance. If he reverts to his old accommodating self, then we’ll know that the inaugural speech was nothing more than high rhetoric.

Hank Kalet is a poet and freelance writer in New Jersey. He covers economic issues for NJ Spotlight and teaches news writing at Rutgers University and writing at Middlesex County College.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2013

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