Time for a Progressive Primary?

02/22/2011 06:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama continues to disappoint. The occupation of Afghanistan continues with no end in sight, a U.S.-installed leader who does not lead, and no clear goal, other than keeping the Taliban out of power. The occupation of Iraq, never sensible, crawls toward the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but how does one interpret the construction of a billion-dollar-plus embassy, and plans to increase its staffing from 8,000 to 17,000, spread around the country? It seems that here, too, we plan to hang around until they get it right -- that is, until they align with U.S. interests permanently.

These two occupations continue to drain us of hundreds of billions annually, kill and maim our most courageous and dedicated fighting forces, impose collateral damage in many thousands of civilian deaths and injuries, and do not rebuild their tattered infrastructure. Where is the morality of our strategic occupation of these two countries? Mr. Obama, are you really feeling the pain?

In the face of the remarkable Egyptian people's revolution, the U.S. constantly was a day late and a dollar short, trying to balance our loyalty to an aging dictator with encouragement for the people. Both pro- and anti-democracy sides were frustrated with our nuanced messages. Are we going to be clear or nuanced in the people's protests to come in the Middle East? The Bahrain example is not encouraging: nuance in the face of gunfire. One fears the continued influence of the careful realists in the White House.

Domestically, the constitutional breaches incurred after 9/11 continue to be endorsed by this constitutional scholar. The White House issued a "we would not object" to extension of the Patriot Act, failing to identify even one provision that could be curtailed in the name of our best principles. Warrant-less wiretaps will continue. Indefinite detention of terrorist suspects will continue. Extrajudicial listing of citizens on a kill list will continue. Guantanamo will stay open (how about moving a civilian court there, to ensure due process?).

On the economy, Mr. Obama continues to move further right, in a futile attempt to convince the corporate elite that he is business-friendly. Historical note: After he followed Bush's lead in bailing out the financial system and the auto companies, what was the response? Complaints that business-bashing had to stop. Corporate contributions overwhelmingly to Republicans in the recent elections. Whining about too much regulation, as if everyone has forgotten that it was too little regulation and too little oversight that gave us the financial collapse in the housing market.

The evidence is clear that expecting gratitude or reciprocity from the major corporations and financial houses will not succeed. What Mr. Obama needs to do is propose major public works programs that directly put people to work. Simply waiting for the economy to pull down unemployment will guarantee a Republican Congress in 2012.

Recently, he went after civil servants as the first to sacrifice in the budget-cutting frenzy. By unilaterally freezing government salaries for two years, he enabled the Republicans to go for five years, plus cuts in federal salaries and pensions. He compromised on extending tax cuts for the rich, when he should have stuck to his campaign promise to end them. He has ordered a governmental reorganization, substituting smoke for substance.

Further, he has adopted Republican calls for eliminating unnecessary regulations, again empowering the right to go much further. He has begun to delay and hold up health and environmental regulations, without a fight. If the Senate goes along with some of the right-wing demands for larger budget cuts, will he stand firm with a veto, or explain that he was over a barrel again? It is hard to be optimistic on the budget front.

As Mr. Obama marches steadily right, from his initial position right-of-center, where does that leave liberals and progressives who still believe in the role of government to protect and enhance our democracy?

The political environment has heard shrieks from the right, and whispers from the left. In the political calculus, is it any surprise that the president has intensified his disdain for his liberal base? One continues to search in vain for liberal appointees in the White House. The recent appointment of a Chief of Staff from the corporate world makes it clear once again: There is no room in Mr. Obama's tent for the left.

What is one to do? Perhaps a beginning would be to raise the noise level from the left. Forget about being insiders. Treat Mr. Obama's policies as the right-wing sell-outs they are. Shout out the message of putting people first, respect for the constitution, and economic health for all. FDR said "make me do it," encouraging outside pressure groups to give him a public reason for action.

Hoping for insider influence has failed. We have to regain our voice as outsiders, raising the issues, the policies, and the actions which will rally public support and pressure, and change public opinion.

I suggest that this spring should see nation-wide progressive primaries, with debates all over the country. The primaries should last a year, until the formal election season begins.

This would: (1) identify the most effective speakers; (2) identify the most resonant issues; (3) give greater weight and public support for progressive policies; (4) mobilize money and enthusiasm for the 2012 election; and (5) either move Mr. Obama well back to the left, or give rise to a better candidate.

We can't assume that Mr. Obama is our best candidate, until we examine the progressive alternatives. Time to speak up.