Obama’s Choice: Transformative or Treacherous

Robert Borosage

In The Washington Post, columnist Matt Miller gleefully notes the parallels between President Obama’s campaign and that of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. Then, Republican opponent Bob Dole was lashed to the radical then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich budget; now Mitt Romney to the extremist budget of House Budget Committee chairman Rep Paul Ryan.

Clinton won re-election as the populist defender of “M2E2″ – Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment – railing against the devastating cuts called for in the Gingrich budget. Obama has set himself up to run as the defender of M2E2 again – Medicare, Medicaid and Everything Else that Ryan would literally gut to pay for his tax cuts for the rich.

For Miller, an Obama victory, like that of Bill Clinton, then holds the tantalizing possibility of treacherous “progress” in the second term:

“Does any of this mean an Obama returned to office on these terms can make substantive progress in a second term? Perhaps. Clinton was poised to do big Nixon-to-China entitlement reforms with the GOP until the Lewinsky mess exploded. Obama, one assumes, won’t be facing such land mines.”

For progressives, this summarizes a shroud that hangs over the race. Obama recaptures his voice as a populist champion of change. We rally to his side. And then upon election, he uses the mandate not to defend M2E2 and progressive taxation, but for cutting another “grand bargain.” He’ll aim for earning elite approval by signing off on cuts to Medicare and Social Security, education and vital investments in exchange for “tax reform” that lowers rates while removing “loopholes.”

Does a second-term Obama see his legacy on the scale of Reagan – that he ends the conservative grip on our politics, and begins an era of progressive reform in which government stands with the many and helps to rebuild a broad middle class, and revive the Dream? Or does he see his legacy as doing “big Nixon-to China entitlement reforms,” embracing the elite consensus, and sustaining a conservative era of constrained government and growing inequality? Will he be the progressive president who revives the American dream or the New Democrat who buries it?

Conservatives worry about Mitt Romney’s Etch-a-Sketch strategy – that he’s wearing conservative garb for the primaries but will “reset” into moderate country-club Republicanism for the general election. Progressives worry that Obama will lead the progressive charge in the general, but abandon it once returned to office.

Beltway conservatives like Grover Norquist worry less about Romney in office. They believe the Tea Party-dominated House will set the agenda; any Republican president will have to sign whatever survives the Senate.

Progressives don’t have that solace. We not only have to retake the House – a vital mission this fall – but we have to overcome the diminished but still kicking Blue Dog/New Dem rump groups in the House caucus, the corporate wing of the party always ready to cut a deal with the powers that be.

When he was running for election in 2008, Obama noted how Reagan, unlike Clinton, had been a transformative president, indicting he’d prefer to be like the former, not the latter. If he wins re-election, still a heavy pull, he will face that choice. A transformative president or a treacherous one. And while his voters will mobilize behind the former, there are a lot of New Dems, as Miller shows, eagerly anticipating the latter.

That’s why progressives have to keep building independent movements. We need an independent political capacity to elect progressive champions in Democratic primaries and to take back the House. We need an independent movement to challenge the limits of the debate, as We Are One did in Wisconsin, and Occupy Wall Street did across the country. We need independent mobilization to drive change — from taking on the entrenched interests in Washington (the oil companies, the insurance and drug companies, the big banks) to curbing money in politics, and demanding progress on basic rights — decent jobs, affordable health care, world class public education, secure retirement.

Central to the effort will be rallying to Obama as he takes on a right growing ever more loony. Central to it will be organizing independently to support Obama if he chooses to be transformative and confront him should he go the other way.

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