President Bill Clinton once confided to an aide, "I'm a progressive president in a conservative era." Will Barack Obama be a progressive president in a progressive era, the first since 1965 and 1933?
Several Republicans leaders and media commentaries -- including a recent Newsweek cover story on "America the Conservative" -- say no. Obama ran a cautious, centrist campaign, they conclude, so should not "lurch left" as president.
This is stale, presumptuous and wrong.
First, elections have consequences. Because conservative values and programs - - like preventive war, trickle-down economics, financial deregulation - crashed into a reef of reality, the country is getting bluer. Hence net shifts of at least 11 Senate seats and some 53 House seats to Democrats in the '06 and '08 elections. Polling shows increasing majorities who are pro-environment, pro-choice, pro-expanded healthcare and anti-Iraq war, anti-big business. Indeed, it's hard to think of any issue where Americans are becoming more conservative.
While Democrats and Republicans were tied in registration in 2006, Dems now have opened a seven point registration advantage, which will likely grow as minorities and professionals grow as a percentage of the electorate.
So if Bush could claim a mandate when he lost the popular vote in 2000 and won it by under 3 million votes in 2004, why can't Obama claim one when he won by 8 million votes?
Third, ardent movements lead politicians rather than vice-versa. And today, the new energy appears to be far more progressive at the ground level. Turnout in many Democratic primaries were roughly double the election cycle before. The explosive growth of the Internet and the netroots community heavily tilts to Blue America. Just five years ago, such influential progressive entities as The Huffington Post, Center for American Progress, Media Matters and Air America didn't even exist, and MoveOn had half its current reach.
Last, smart government is back. For years government has been a four-letter word invariably indistinguishable from bureaucracy. But President Reagan's inaugural observation that "Government is not the solution, government is the problem" has fallen flat after events from Hurricane Katrina to E-coli outbreaks, from the dangerous Chinese toys to collapsed mines in West Virginia and Utah, from millions losing their homes in foreclosures to inadequate care in veterans facilities. Alan Greenspan's mea culpa to the Waxman Committee last month confirmed the death of market fundamentalism as a governing philosophy. Seems that laissez wasn't always fair.
If the preconditions for a progressive realignment exists, does a program for one exist Obama won largely because he urged a change from Bush. Now he needs to specify a change for what?
So 18 months ago my New Democracy Project began a joint project with the Center for American Progress Action Fund to produce an agency-by-agency critique for whoever won. Today we released our 300,00 word volume Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President. Drafted by scores of leading scholars, advocates and officials, the results is hundreds of proposals grounded in four values, four foundations of what can be called a Program of Progressive Patriotism - - democracy, diplomacy, economic opportunity and a greener world.
Value 1: A Stronger Democracy. While issues involving war and economy invariably trump other voter concerns -- and 2008 was no exception - the process of democracy should be a bedrock American concern because process is policy. "If we want to solve our problems," writes Michael Waldman in his book A Return to Common Sense, "we have to fix our systems." When the mechanism of democracy is broken--when there's such secrecy, disenfranchisement, lawlessness, dishonesty, and special interest sway that people can't convey what they want or need--then government can't act in the public interest.
As Ronald Reagan kept referring back to Freedom as a primary value, Barack Obama can hold up Democracy as his primary value. It's a good time to not only wave the flag but also to pursue policies that honor what it stands for.
So a new President and Congress could: create universal voter enrollment; make it a crime for any person or official to actively suppress the vote by any form of intimidation; enact a public finance law to provide a funding floor under congressional candidates; establish federal standards for electronic voting, with paper-verifiable ballots, same day registration, voting by mail and felony disenfranchisement laws so all states come into the 21st century in technology and process; and create a White House Office of Democracy ("Democracy Czar") to push for all of these and other pro-democracy reforms on behalf of the President, for the only way such non-headline reforms can be enacted by the congressional and executive branch bureaucracies is if there's a known emissary advocating on behalf of a committed president.
Value 2: Economic Opportunity. America has never begrudged people becoming rich, so long as everyone had a shot at becoming rich. As Abraham Lincoln put it, all would have "an open field and a fair chance [for their] industry, enterprise, and intelligence."
By that standard, the American economy in 2008 is failing. There's a vast amount of data - especially lower real earnings for medium-income workers this decade -- that most Americans feel as if they're always running faster after an accelerating bus called prosperity.
Partly it's due to the "invisible hand" of global economic trends, where $3-an-hour Mexican laborers and 67¢ an hour Chinese using the same technology as $24-an-hour American autoworkers will produce cheaper cars. But it's also due to the visible hand of public policy. Just as Franklin Roosevelt's labor and regulatory policies and Truman's GI bill helped create the American middle class, Reagan's and Bush's labor, tax and deregulatory policies are shrinking it. Indeed, over the past 60 years, the real incomes of the middle class rose twice as fast during Democratic administrations and six times as fast for the working poor.
The best way to lift people up from poverty and provide real income gains for the middle class is for the 44th president to concentrate on the value of economic opportunity for all. Fulfilling an Economic Opportunity Agenda would: reduce tax rates on those earning under $200,000 and raise top rates on the fortunate few back at least to 38 percent, as in the 1990s when the economy was steaming ahead; push for some version of universal health insurance, perhaps with a "Medicare for All" program that the public would understand; cut poverty by half by 2016 by focusing on programs that help children from birth to 5 years of age, starting with a program for "Universal Pre-K" for 4 year-olds; push for the Employee Free Choice Act; and establish a wage-loss insurance program to help workers, for a specific period of time, who lose their jobs and are forced to take a new job at a lower wage.
Value 3: Diplomacy for Security. Churchill and FDR understood the value of collective security and diplomacy. Both were witness to the fierce nationalism and pride that helped ignite World War I and were determined toward the end of the next World War to make sure that allies with common interests had common institutions.
It's time for Obama to return to FDR's and Churchill's vision. The 44th president should in effect issue a Declaration of Interdependence because so many international problems - - like pollution, extreme weather, AIDS, terrorism, refugee flows, and nuclear proliferation - - don't respect sovereign borders. The only way to defeat these threats is for nation states to cooperate rather than hide behind Maginot lines or oceans.
Diplomacy-for-security would include: withdrawing responsibly from Iraq and repudiating the strategy of preemptive regime change by military action - and engaging in diplomatic efforts with stakeholders in Iraq and then with its neighbors Iran, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States; shutting Guantanamo and providing due process rights to remaining detainees, as the Supreme Court has insisted; promoting more trade with provisions for labor and environmental standards so we don't have a "race to the bottom" like industrial America in the 1890s; and pushing for the abolition of nuclear weapons world-wide by a) establishing the primary strategic objective of preventing any new actors - state or non-state - from seeking or acquiring nuclear weapons and b) reducing towards zero the risk that actors who already have nuclear arms will use them.
Value 4: A Greener World. Not that long ago conservatives regularly mocked liberals as "tree huggers" and George H. W. Bush called Al Gore "the ozone man." But that was before extreme weather produced six of the hottest eight years of the past century, four of the most severe hurricanes, the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice -- and nearly all scientists agreed that unmitigated climate change would lead to massive casualties as oceans surged and desperate neighboring nations went to war.
Given all the sins of emission and omission, Obama will have public support to launch an Apollo-like project to produce a green, low-carbon economy that delivers more prosperity by making our nation more energy efficient and internationally competitive. The only way to serve as a model to China and India is to build a green consciousness into every economic decision, every transportation decision, every tax decision, every regulatory decision.
Creating a "clean-tech" economy requires: the creation of a new White House "National Energy Council" that is equivalent of the National Security Council for climate change; the implementation of a carbon "cap and trade" system that sells corporations permits to emit greenhouse gases and that can a) push us from a high carbon to a low carbon economy, b) generate hundreds of billions annually in revenues to promote alternative energy like wind, solar and biomass and c) provide rebates to struggling Americans hit with higher energy prices; a program to develop a new line of ultra-efficient vehicles, such as plug-in hybrids that can get 100 miles per gallon as well as new battery systems; and mandatory policies to increase electricity generated from renewables, something dropped from the 2007 Energy Bill.
Not since 1933 has there been a presidential handoff involving a bigger gap in philosophy at a more difficult time, in terms of two wars, a declining economy and a corrupted world environment. In the middle of these multiple crises, the 2008 election has put in place the first progressive president and progressive congressional majority in 50 years. So there's now going to be a transition between presidencies and perhaps between eras. No one can assert we have seen a permanent progressive realignment - - Karl Rove's hubris about a 50 year conservative hubris should give all pause - - only the opportunity for such a progressive realignment.
It's now up to the new President during his transition and "first hundred days" to tactically deploy executive orders, major addresses, well-chosen visits and proposed legislation to convey his substance, his strategy, his plan, his narrative. Not just his list of proposals but a vision of what he wants America to look like when he's done in, say, 2016.
He campaigned on big change so he should now act big. As President, Barack Obama is ideally and historically situated to ideally reframe the American conversation around democracy, diplomacy, opportunity and a greener world. What's more patriotic than the story of progress?
Mark Green, president of Air America Media, is co-author (with Michele Jolin) of the forthcoming Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President (Basic Books).
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