02/17/2012 03:21 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2012

Imagining the Fighting Obama

Barack Obama got to be president by persuading political independents that a likable type like himself could inspire cooperation across party lines to solve the nation's problems. He wanted to be the Ronald Reagan of his party, a forward-looking optimist who changed the course of history. He wanted to do it by winning independents and a significant minority of Republicans to his idea of good government, just as Reagan won over independents and Blue Dog Democrats. Getting people to like him had always worked for Obama, as did his trope about America not being divided between blue states and red states -- there was only the United States of America.

But the Republican Party, after losing in 2008, opted for relentless obstruction. House Republicans offered zero votes for averting a second Depression. The leader of the Senate Republicans declared that his party's top priority was to take down Obama. Republicans took the nation hostage to win a political ransom, driving America to the edge of default. They wailed about the national debt, never mind that they exploded the debt under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and exploded it again under George W. Bush. Meanwhile Obama, for all his communitarian belief in the necessity of working together, and his disappointment at being obstructed and held hostage, had always known better than his hopeful words about Democrats and Republicans making good government together.

He said it in September 2006, at Tom Harkin's steak fry in Indianola, Iowa. Mulling a presidential run, Obama cautioned Iowa Democrats that the Republican Party lacks any constructive concept of good government. Most Republicans are devoted to dismantling democratic governance, Obama observed. They are committed to breaking up government piece by piece, privatizing Social Security and Medicare, abolishing programs for the poor and vulnerable, cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, abolishing public schools, replacing police with private security guards, letting Wall Street do whatever it wants, and turning public parks into privately owned playgrounds. Almost everything that Republicans do in Congress, Obama stressed, is driven by this vision of a society favoring the interests of corporations and the rich. It is the view that America is at its best when Americans deny that they owe obligations to each other.

Obama stopped putting it this starkly after he won the presidency because he had no chance of winning Republican cooperation on anything if he did not say that he expected something better. In his 2010 State of the Union address he told Republican leaders that if they were going to insist that no business could get done in the Senate without 60 votes, they had to take responsibility for governing. Saying no to everything had nothing to do with leadership or decent governance.

Then Republican leaders took Obama hostage over the Bush tax cuts in December 2010, over Medicaid in April 2011, and over the debt ceiling in July 2011, and Obama rethought his presidency. He still prizes his reputation for civility and cooperation. He hopes that he will inherit a less obstructionist opposition if he wins a second term. He will be a lame duck, the Tea Party will fade, and more Republicans will accept him as a legitimate president. Perhaps something closer to normal politics will resume.

But the big issues that loom ahead have to be fought over: Breaking up the megabanks, scaling back America's global military empire, lifting the cap on the Social Security tax, adding tax brackets at the upper end, abolishing fee for service medicine, and building a clean energy economy. The U.S. has underinvested in infrastructure for decades, and the costs of labor and capital will never be lower than they are today. Obama has belatedly committed his presidency to social investment. But actually doing it will require more fighting than he waged on anything in his first term. Even defending the financial and health care reforms that he achieved will require more fighting than he put up to attain them.

Obama still has an essentially progressive vision of the presidency that he wants to have, notwithstanding that he rolled over for Wall Street, tripled down in Afghanistan, and demoralized his progressive base. He is still the most compelling human being to reach the White House in decades. And he is still a figure of singular promise in American politics. To fulfill that promise he has to overcome his own cautious, accommodating temperament, and progressives have to believe it is still possible.

Gary Dorrien is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. His many books include "Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit" (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) and the forthcoming "Obama in Question: A Progressive Perspective" (Rowman & Littlefield).