03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Is Timid Because Progressives Are Timid

I am having a lot of "oy-vey" moments these days. Oy vey, we're not going to get single payer health care, the only option that would save money and expand coverage. Oy-vey, we're not going to get a revival of Glass-Steagal, the common sense firewall that Congress established in 1933 to prevent banks from engaging in risky investment. Oy-vey, we're not going to get meaningful climate change legislation, as cap-and-trade will include billions in windfalls for polluters. Oy-vey, we're not going get real labor law reform, as the card-check provision of the Employee Free Choice Act has been tossed overboard. Oy-vey we'll never get out of Iraq or Afghanistan. Oy.

The cumulative weight of these concerns frustrates me deeply. I suspect that the Democrats may be at the height of their power right now, and every socialist bone in my body wants to blame President Obama and his political advisers. As Arianna Huffington asks in her post, if reform is in Obama's DNA, then why has he surrounded himself with centrists? Why didn't he start with a bang, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt? If George W. Bush could govern from the extreme right, why can't Obama govern from the left?

As tempting as it may be to blame the White House, the administration's centrism is not the problem. Progressives must not give the White House a free pass. But the obstacles standing in the way of change have nothing to do with the President.

To begin, the Democratic and Republican coalitions differ in a critical way. The Republican coalition is made up of groups who can get what they want without compromising with one another. George Bush could pursue pro-gun, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-tax, and pro-war policies without forcing activists from any of these camps to compromise with each other. This is not to say that the Republican camp is free of contradiction. That said, an extreme right-wing administration can keep Grover Norquist, Richard Perle and Pat Robertson happy at the same time.

The Democratic coalition, by contrast, includes factions that disagree with each other about the optimal size and scope of the government. DLC-centrists favor a relatively smaller state while progressives tend to favor a larger state. On almost every major issue, one side has to give. Hence the liberal wing of the party which insists on a public option and yearns for single payer inevitably butts heads with centrists like Max Baucus. It's pretty hard to keep both camps happy at the same time.

Another obstacle is of course the structure of the Senate, which provides disproportionate influence to residents of small, mostly conservative states and which allows coalitions of just forty Senators to block almost anything. It is worth remembering that Senate filibusters blocked federal anti-lynching legislation that the House of Representatives passed throughout much of the 1920s, '30s and '40s.

Finally, despite the current partisan balance in Congress and the public, the American people are, for the most part, more conservative than liberal. Even after eight years of George Bush, an economic collapse, and the disastrous McCain campaign, Barack Obama prevailed by a margin of only 7 percentage points: 53% to 46%. That is an electoral landslide. But it is sobering to realize that if just 4 out of 100 people had shifted allegiances, McCain would have won the popular vote. Roughly 40% of the public self-identifies as conservative, while only about 20% of the public claims to be liberal. (The rest are moderates.)

How much can we expect from a President who presides over a relatively conservative public, whose party is fractured by a fundamental contradiction, and whose legislative agenda is held hostage by Ben Nelson? Probably not much. That said, there are at least two steps - one short-term and one long-term -- that Democrats and progressives can take to pursue real change.

First, the short-term: Senate Democrats should get rid of the filibuster. After eight years of George Bush, it is scary to contemplate that proposal. When Republicans get back into power, they would do a lot of damage if they were unchecked by the filibuster. So why take the risk?

Democrats need to have confidence that the public will reward them for passing policies that improve the general welfare, and will hold Republicans accountable for damage. The 2008 election can be understood in these terms. The public allowed itself to be snookered in 2004, but after Katrina, economic collapse and two failed wars, the Republicans were booted out of office.

If threats facing the country were minor, perhaps eliminating the filibuster would make no sense. Given that the seas are rising, that we are killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians in wars that do not improve our security, and that we are in desperate need of single payer health care, real public transportation and financial re-regulation, only radical reform will solve our problems. And we will never get radical reform as long as the filibuster lives. The status quo is more risky than the elimination of the filibuster.

Second, the long-term: Progressives need to do a better job of convincing the public of the legitimacy of their ideas. How many progressive groups are working with journalists to help the public understand that high taxes are good? That excessive military strength is dangerous? That gay marriage helps kids? That anti-immigrant sentiment is highly correlated with racism? That we already have a health care system based on rationing? These claims may sound dangerous, but research shows that all of them are true. Yet progressives often seem too scared of their own beliefs to do real consciousness-raising around dangerous ideas.

A colleague and I are writing a book called Selling Liberal Ideas that explains how, over a ten year period, gay rights advocates changed the public's mind about one point, the notion that gay troops undermine military effectiveness. When this work started, Generals who said that it was necessary to fire gay soldiers crushed activists who disputed them. Now, when people say that it is necessary to fire gay troops, they sound loony. By (1) identifying the central un-truth that propped up bad policy; (2) using scholarship to question the plausibility of that un-truth; (3) actively distributing the scholarship to journalists; and (4) repeating these steps again and again over ten years, gay advocates slowly changed the public's mind.

George Lakoff has said that progressives need to be more sophisticated about how we frame ideas. But I don't think he's quite right. The reason that Republicans need to work so hard at framing is that their policies are designed to hurt people, so they rely on frames to conceal what they're doing (e.g. "Clear Skies Initiative"). Since progressive policies are not designed to hurt people, we don't have to be coy about our values.

To the extent that the gays-in-the-military example can be applied to other issues, progressive groups should be more direct, honest and aggressive about what they believe, and should use research as the basis of communications with the public. That's how to change bedrock principles of public opinion. That's how to open up a space to make it safe for politicians to make real change.

So, one year after the election, what do you think Candidate Obama would think of President Obama? Tweet your response (our Twitter hashtag is #OneYearLater), or post it in the comments section.