Last week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs sparked an uproar when he complained about the dissatisfaction of the "professional left." Although he didn't specify who he included in that group, activists, advocates and bloggers all took it personally, and many expressed their dissatisfaction and anger in public or in private. Eventually Gibbs qualified his statement somewhat, but the tension and frustration still linger.
Most discussion has focused on whether Secretary Gibbs was right or wrong, whether he was blaming the right people and whether he spoke too harshly. But these questions miss the larger question of what's at stake in this debate and of who and what all of us are fighting against.
The election of President Obama presented America with the opportunity to make some serious progress on the critically important areas of health care, financial regulation, energy, immigration and more. Undeniably, major progress has been made on at least some of those issues. Whether enough progress has been made or which tactics should have been used is open to debate. And that's ok. If the solutions and the way to accomplish them were easy and clear, these problems would have addressed and solved decades ago.
Beyond the debate about the pace of change, though, it's far more important that we refocus on one of the great promises the 2008 election gave us: a chance to recast Americans' views towards government.
For decades, the GOP has attacked government as a failure, a drain, and a malignant force in the lives of ordinary Americans. They told us that when government wasn't utterly incompetent, it was overly intrusive. Regulations, they claim, harm the economy. Government intervention, except when intervening on issues of marriage and reproductive health of course, is always bad. Unrestrained market forces will solve every problem. Tax cuts for the rich are great in a booming economy and even better in a bad one.
These attitudes aren't arrived at arbitrarily. There are forces in our nation that want government out of the way. Energy companies, agribusiness, manufacturers, pharmaceutical corporations and Wall Street all want less regulation--not because they're led by bad people, but because restrictions of any kind can be "bad for business."
The effects of that ideology are obvious to anyone who watched BP damage the Gulf of Mexico or saw decades of savings go up in smoke while corporate executives pocketed billions. Those who preach the "government is the problem" philosophy, as the President accurately points out, have driven our nation into a ditch. To make matters worse, they haven't let go of the wheel.
Despite major defeats in 2006 and 2008, the GOP is relentlessly obstructing the President's and all of the Left's agenda. After almost two years, it's easy to take that for granted, but in fact the Republican willingness to throw sand in the gears of government--delaying even the most critical and unobjectionable nominees and legislation--verges on catastrophic. But catastrophe cuts in their favor. After all, if your ideology depends on the premise that government is always a failure, you work hard to make sure that government always fails. When Americans see government that makes a real impact in their lives with Social Security, Medicare, Head Start, and better schools they want more of it, not less, and they want it to work.
We still have a chance to reshape Americans' relationship with government, but that's never easy.
The American people are painfully aware of the sway that corporations have over their lives. By showing people that government can make a difference, and by arguing forcefully against the conservative ideologues who claim otherwise, we can remind America that our government truly can be of, by and for the people. It's tough but each victory we scrape out is another chance to prove that point.
The White House and the "professional left," however that's defined, both have critical roles to play in that fight. Both roles can be difficult at times, and tension is inevitable, but we are all on the same team.
No matter what our disagreements may be over tactics, they pale in comparison to the enormity of what we have the chance to do--if we do it together.
Follow Michael B. Keegan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/peoplefor