THE BLOG

Great Expectations

12/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

End climate change. End the war. End Wall Street corruption. Achieve universal health care. Rebuild trust in government. Given the election results, this is just some of what is now expected by Obama supporters, especially progressive Democrats and the young. Time for a Newer Deal. A New Frontier. A New Agenda. A Mandate for Change. The other drums are beating too, of course. Don't overreach. Govern from the center. And yet there are those pesky expectations. Democrats, significantly including those chairing critical House committees, have been waiting for this moment for decades.

So what exactly will be the Obama agenda? Who will set it? How will it be accomplished with the many often disparate interests within the Democratic Party and Obama's far broader electoral base? Given past failures -- on both the left and the right -- can he bring about lasting change?

Much has been made of the sizable majorities the Democrats will now hold in Congress. But the Senate is still not filibuster -- proof; and many Senate Democrats are decidedly "blue dog." In 2001, President George W Bush claimed a broad mandate (despite having lost the popular vote by more than half a million votes -- the audacity of nope). The GOP next took both houses of Congress, yet spent much of their time seeking to "save" a brain dead woman and promoting a brain dead idea, privatizing social security.

Before that, there was the Clinton Administration - when Democrats, as now, controlled Congress. Yet with only 44% of the popular vote and a House Leadership atrophied from forty years in the majority, the Clinton agenda was stymied. Within two years, the GOP would sweep both houses and announce its own "Contract With America," most also never actually adopted. Change isn't easy. We lost LBJ's War on Poverty. Even The Reagan Revolution sputtered and now has brought a counter-revolution; regulation is back. The pendulum swings.

Some are saying the best Obama analogy is 1933. That was a heady time for change, especially those famed First Hundred Days. In accepting the nomination, Franklin Delano Roosevelt put his goals eloquently: "Throughout the nation men and women forgotten in the political philosophy of Government look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth [uh oh]...I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms." Employing a Brain Trust of insiders and outsiders, FDR's New Deal accomplished a great deal - empowering unions, creating jobs, establishing Social Security. Yet even the New Dealers were not entirely successful. Many reforms were tossed out by the Supreme Court, repealed by a subsequent Congress or came undone by later deregulation.

Obama has sounded his own call to arms, that "fierce urgency of now." "Now" has come. While some of the challenges Roosevelt confronted remain with us - the power of Big Business, the maldistribution of wealth -- we are not (at least not yet) facing a national economic collapse and 25% unemployment. Yet in some respects what confronts the Obama Administration is equally daunting: the continuing shockwaves of globalization, the loss of the nation's industrial base, a deepening recession, massive deficits and a nearly ten trillion dollar national debt, the health care crisis, Climate Change, two wars, terrorism -- such challenges could overwhelm any Administration, even one backed by a broad based coalition and a unified Congress.
A common goal of any new presidency is to create just such a governing coalition. Few have achieved it. Witness Karl Rove. After the Bush re-election, he touted the 60 million votes Bush received as beating Reagan at his best. Then came Katrina, immigration and the rest.

Now pundits debate not if but why Rove failed. Direct mail guru Richard Vigurie claims Rove took the Republican Party so far to the left (no, really) with his deficits and leaving no child behind as to render him "the architect of George W. Bush's betrayal of the conservative cause." Others decry Rove's scorched earth tactics alienating those in Congress on both sides of the aisle. How will Obama avoid this fate? By reaching consensus "now" among the major segments of his new coalition on what to achieve, how and by when - providing the foundation for his own First Hundred Days.

To do so, his own Brain Trust will need a truly large brain. Perhaps drilling offshore (or in ANWR) will be price required for a comprehensive energy policy. Perhaps trial lawyers will need to reform their own house to achieve corporate accountably. Perhaps a carbon tax will be required to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Perhaps unions will need to eliminate discrimination in their midst to achieve The Employee Free Choice Act. Perhaps American consumers cannot afford to own that new house or car or boat on credit.

Perhaps not.

These are the conversations that must be had over the coming weeks to make the extraordinary promise of this new Administration a reality.

Movers and shakers on the right -- the NRA, the Chamber of Commerce, pro-lifers and religious fundamentalists - have often (not always) done a fair job at coalition politics. Yet despite years with allies in power, many of their objectives -- ending abortion, gay marriage and gun control (admittedly they got close) -- remain unrealized. Nor has their ilk disappeared -- especially the business community, happy to help "reform" Wall Street. On the left, there are literally thousands of advocacy organizations, many in competition with each other for there own constituency (think labor) and in conflict with others for limited resources. Who speaks for seniors? For children? For working men and women? For minorities? For the environment? Can they find common ground? These will be a critical questions in determining Obama's success.

After the 2004 Bush re-election, Republican Party chief Ken Mehlman said, "something fundamental has...happened. [The Republican Party] is in a stronger position that at any time since the Great Depression." That lasted four years. So is this election truly a "realignment" of American politics? Decidedly maybe. As one historian put it recently "2008 certainly smells like a critical election". The opportunities are there. The public demands change and with sufficient leadership this time -- real change, systemic change -- may truly come.

Al Meyerhoff is a civil rights/labor/consumer/environmental lawyer in Los Angeles. (alm@csgrr.com)