Obama’s Running Room – And Ours

Robert Kuttner

President Barack Obama won a tactical victory on New Year’s weekend by forcing Republicans to raise taxes on the top 1 percent, but he has far bigger challenges to address—and so do progressives.

The economy is still at risk of several more years of hidden depression, with a high level of unemployment and no wage growth. The initial budget deal, thanks to Obama’s post-election toughness on tax increases on the rich and pressure by unions and progressive organizations not to cut Social Security and Medicare, was better than it might have been. But still to come are debates over budget cuts, with Republicans having the leverage of an automatic $120 billion “sequester” for this fiscal year now postponed to early March, if Congress fails to legislate its own additional deficit reduction.

In principle, Obama has committed to $4 trillion in budget cuts over a decade, a sum that would be a huge drag on the recovery, leaving too little for the public investment necessary to create jobs and for the scale of infrastructure spending needed to mitigate future superstorms like Sandy. Since the election, the president has walked back some of his earlier commitment to spending cuts. But even as he forced major concessions out of the Republicans, he has continued to embrace deficit reductions as a necessary path to recovery, a strategy that makes no economic sense and that only whets the appetites of the right-wing anti-government crusade and its close ally, the corporate-sponsored Fix the Debt campaign.

So where is Obama’s running room to pursue a more far-reaching agenda? And where is the running room for progressives to move him?

The president still faces a rigidly conservative Republican House. The Senate, despite a slightly larger Democratic margin of 55 to 45 and the retirement of prominent budget hawks Kent Conrad, Ben Nelson, and Joe Lieberman, has at least six centrist Democrats—enough to deny the president a reliable working majority on some key issues.

But Obama would be wise to pursue a more progressive agenda, for multiple reasons. First, he has his legacy to worry about. Once it sinks in that budget cuts will not produce a robust recovery, Obama will increasingly wish to avoid being remembered as the Democrat who presided over eight years of declining living standards. Second, he is somewhat liberated in that he will not be up for re-election. Third, coming out of his victory, Obama found that progressive stances are good politics. He drew a bright red line on raising taxes on the wealthiest rather than cutting aid to the middle class, and the voters agreed. Finally, progressives are pushing him hard—maybe harder than in his first term.

Both Obama and the progressive community can learn from the missteps of his early years. Soon after the 2008 campaign ended, the new president’s political team wound down Organizing for America as an independent grassroots army and rebranded it as Obama for America, under the thumb of the Democratic National Committee. It’s understandable why the White House did not want a semi-independent mass movement to the president’s left acting in Obama’s name, complicating strategy and message. But the move also deprived the president of the kind of popular fervor that might have helped him shift from a candidate of change to a president of change—and offset the voter frustration that was captured by the Tea Party.

In 2009, Obama kept extending olive branches to Republicans who were determined to destroy him. He appointed a centrist economic team. As the recession deepened, he declined to push for a second stimulus package even though congressional Democrats were eager to pass one. (They finally did so in December 2009 with no help from the White House, only to see it die in the Senate.) He did not push the Employee Free Choice Act, despite the prodding of a labor movement that had gone all out to elect him. Even though a massive liberal coalition on health-care reform helped Obama enact the Affordable Care Act, the one provision that progressives most dearly wanted—a Medicare-style “public option”—was watered down and then jettisoned.

In his State of the Union address in January 2010, Obama pivoted to deficit reduction, even though the economy was far from a strong recovery, and the labor-liberal wing of the party seethed. In short, in Obama’s first term, progressives found they had little leverage on a president who turned out to be more moderate and conciliatory than they expected. All concerned suffered in the 2010 midterm Democratic congressional defeat that followed.

Will this time be different?

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