Quick: name one President over the last 40 plus years who has done more for furthering progressive policies than Barack Obama.
You can't, can you? Yet among liberals there only seem to be complaints about the President's performance. "Why hasn't Obama done more?" we moan. "Why doesn't Obama stand up to the Republicans?" we fret. And then there's every progressive's favorite parlor game: "What if it had been Hillary at the top of the ticket in '08?" Those not engaged in such anguished speculations are out on the streets, occupying everywhere from Wall Street to Oakland. The Occupy protestors have demonstrated that progressives still have plenty of fight in them, yet they show little inclination to marshal their energy to do for Obama and the Democrats in 2012 what the Tea Party did for the Republicans in 2010.
While our frustrations and fury over the state of the union are more than warranted, let's be clear about one thing: Obama isn't the problem. In fact, it's time to appreciate that we progressives have actually underrated Obama as a president. That's right, underrated. And wildly so.
In this sped-up world, we expect change... now! But that's not how change works. FDR didn't sweep into office with a magic wand and -- poof -- the Depression was over. Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement had to struggle for over a decade to build up enough support to change federal law. Yet in less than three years Obama has accomplished more in terms of health care, civil rights, the environment and financial regulation than Bill Clinton did his entire two terms. And he has done so during a world-wide economic cataclysm AND in the nastiest of political climates.
Don't believe me? Then take a look at just a few of Obama's domestic accomplishments:
- Signed major health care reform into law (the issue that effectively ended Clinton's progressive aspirations)
- Signed major financial reform into law (just look where all the Wall St. money is going this election cycle if you think the reforms were toothless)
- Not only revitalized but actually saved the US auto industry (Ford and Chrysler both just announced more hirings last month)
- Got said auto industry to agree to the most sweeping environmental changes in terms of fuel efficiency and cleaner burning fuels to date (and this from an industry that has infamously resisted all manners of environmental regulation)
- Invested more money in alternative fuel options than any previous administration
- Repealed 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (which was a policy of Clinton's!)
- Stopped enforcing the abominable Defense of Marriage Act (which Clinton signed into law!)
- Tripled the number of women on the Supreme Court
- Appointed the first Hispanic to the Supreme Court
And Obama has done all this while facing the ugliest, most intransigent, most widely irresponsible opposition ever.
Could the health care bill have been better? Of course. Should Obama have pushed for more stimulus money right away? Maybe (though how the bill would've overcome a filibuster is something you need to explain to me if you believe this). Was TARP a huge betrayal? It was wildly dispiriting, yes, but as policy it was actually effective in stanching a financial meltdown - you only have to look to Europe where the clamoring for a similar program grows louder every day their current mess deepens. Obama has been far from perfect, but in this political climate, with the economy he inherited, he has accomplished so much more than we give him credit for.
So instead of complaining about what Obama hasn't done, we need to trumpet the real progress he has made. I love what Occupy Wall Street is doing, and we progressives should continue to push the President and the Democrats to the left (just as the Tea Party has effectively pushed the Republicans ever rightward). But we also need to engage in the effort to win next year's elections. It's time to get involved again in the often ugly, sometimes distasteful world of electoral politics. And that means dusting off those Hope signs and standing behind Obama again.
And if we don't? Well, the Koch brothers and the Tea Party and the Republicans will only be too happy to elect someone so conservative, he or she will make Bush look like a moderate. Hell, they're already laying plans to dismantle all the reforms we've worked so hard for. It would be a cruel mistake to let them have their way just because we haven't gotten all we wanted from Obama all at once.
Benj Hewitt is a Los Angeles-based writer who is currently finishing up When I Come Around, a coming-of-age memoir set in 1994, the year his mother died. He is also the essay and memoir editor of the literary magazine Swink. On the political side of things, he has worked on campaigns to reform the nation's drug laws as well as co-ordinating fundraising for grass-roots organizations.