Obama's Former Progressive Liaison: Post-Partisanship Doesn't Exist

02/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

Barack Obama's pledge for a post-partisan America has a skeptic in his former liaison to the progressive community.

Mike Lux, who served for nearly two months on the incoming president's transition team before recently leaving, applauded Obama for taking on the gargantuan task of trying to mend the rifts that have divided U.S. government. But in an interview with the Huffington Post on Tuesday to discuss his new book, "The Progressive Revolution," he cautioned that any effort to enact wholesale change in the country would likely come on the back of hard-fought political fights and primarily Democratic support.

"I don't believe there is [such a thing as post-partisanship]," said Lux. "My theory of change is somewhat different than the president-elect's. And I will be fascinated to see how this plays out. But I think, ultimately, even if Obama can be post-partisan on some issues, and I think he can on some issues... At the end of the day the argument between progressives and conservatives does not yield. You don't have moments in American history where everybody is thrilled to come together and the ideas happen easily. There has been no major change in American history that has happened easily, without rancor or without partisanship."

Lux, who served in the Clinton administration before founding Progressive Strategies LLC, makes a far more elaborate case for his theory in his book, which is subtitled, "How the Best in America Came to Be."

That work, a copy of which was provided to the Huffington Post, defines the country's political history as a rich, emotional and sometimes dangerous never-ending debate between progressives and conservatives, one in which governing power is cyclical but "dramatic progress" comes from progressive leadership.

"[W]hen progressives have been on the winning side of that debate politically, the country has made dramatic progress, whereas when conservatives have won the day, the country has suffered as a result," he writes.

Obama, as Lux sees it, is uniquely situated to make such progress. His obvious gifts for oratory and governance are one part of the equation. The other is historical circumstance: the social and political conditions that preceded past moments of major change -- the 1860s, 1930s, and 1960s among others -- apply to the current president-elect, though that might be a mixed blessing.

"I'm not even sure my friends in the Obama administration appreciate this analogy," said Lux. "But I have been arguing that Obama, because of the times we live in, is either going to be FDR or James Buchanan. I don't see, honestly, much choice between the two in terms of possibilities. He is either going to fail spectacularly... or he is going to bring the country together and make big changes that create a new landscape."

The process of creating a new landscape, of course, will be fraught with challenges. For starters, Lux predicts that Obama will be fortunate to receive any effectual support from conservative Republicans, regardless of the number of olive branches he extends.

"I think he is mostly going to have to rely on the Democratic Party and the progressive movement," he says. "There are some cross-party coalitions that get formed. But a great deal of the time when you have big-change moments, you pretty much have to rely on your own party. I think we are not exactly there, but we are pretty close right now. The Republican Party -- outside of [Sens.] Olympia Snowe, maybe Susan Collins, maybe Arlen Specter, maybe George Voinovich because he is retiring now -- for the most part has become solidly in lockstep with far right, conservative thinking. So I think Obama is going to try and push hard to bring Republicans along when he can. But I think mostly he is going to have to rely on Democrats to get things done."

Difficult times will come when the luster of the post-election period fades away. "The smart ones inside [the transition team] understand that [his popularity will fall]," says Lux. And, if history is any guide, Obama will suffer his share of failures and engender his share of disappointments. All of which should be expected.

"I think we are going to have a bunch of bumps and bruises as progressives, but if we make the big changes those will be forgotten," he said. "If [Obama] passes the kind of broad, big economic recovery package that he is talking about, in a month none of us will be thinking about today's disappointment over whether the tax cut side of it may be too big."

And yet, Lux says, there should be no debate as to what kind of politics Obama will practice; he is a definitively progressive figure. Drawing from his time in the Clinton administration and offering his assessment before knowing the outcome of the 2008 election, Lux professes to being struck at how "overt Obama's theme of hope versus fear has been."

"I think the greatest mistake [Hillary] Clinton made in the primary was to suggest the dangers of 'promoting false hope.' It was an odd attack for a candidate whose husband had run sixteen years earlier as 'the man from Hope,' even more so because she was running as a candidate from a party and a movement that had been arguing for hope and change for more than a century," he writes. "Obama has, more than any other candidate in my lifetime, built his candidacy on the legacy of progressive hope and change."

UPDATE: For those interested, click here for an excerpt to the first chapter of Lux's book.