The candidate of soaring hope turns out to govern as a middle-of-the-road Republican, progressive -- "socialist" only in the labels of vilification stuck on him by his opponents.
The great uprising of spirit that swept Barack Obama into office in 2008 has dissipated, morphed into private frustration. Life goes on. The political landscape has never been safer for business as usual.
"We might have been better off with McCain," Rabbi Michael Lerner told me, evoking the eerie non-linearity of politics. "He couldn't have gotten away with some of the stuff Obama has gotten away with, for instance, tax breaks for billionaires or escalation of the war in Afghanistan. McCain would have had more constraints."
Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and co-founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, wants to reignite the spirit of 2008 that gave Obama the presidency, not to hand it back to the visionless Democratic Party but to wake Obama up, challenge him, shock him, scare the hell out of him -- and maybe rescue him in time for the 2012 presidential race by goading him into standing for something.
"With his base deeply disillusioned, many progressives are starting to believe that Obama has little chance of winning reelection unless he enthusiastically embraces a populist agenda and worldview -- soon,"Lerner wrote last week in The Washington Post. "Yet there is little chance that will happen without a massive public revolt by his constituency that goes beyond rallies, snide remarks from television personalities or indignant op-eds."
This revolt, says Lerner, has to come in the form of a progressive challenge to Obama in the 2012 presidential primaries -- the emergence of a candidate who can ignite the same passion Obama himself did in '08 by articulating a vision that courageously counters the military-industrial capitalism that is cannibalizing not only the future but, for increasingly large swaths of the American middle class, the present as well.
Such a vision would include immediate cessation of the Iraq and Af-Pak wars and "a Global Marshall Plan that roots homeland security in a strategy of generosity and concern for the well-being of everyone on the planet"; a massive jobs program; a freeze on mortgage foreclosures; immediate implementation of the aspects of the current health care plan that benefit actual people and the long-range pursuit of universal health care; a tax on carbon emissions; and a great deal more.
The vision is more specific than "hope," and also more than just a laundry list of agenda items. It speaks to the bleeding economic and social wounds of the present moment and also embraces the vision of an America that has transcended violence and fear -- an America that invests in and believes in children, education, human welfare and eco-harmony, not in war, weapons, prisons and privilege.
"This policy platform," wrote Lerner, "must be matched with a willingness to talk unequivocally about the spiritual and ethical need for a new bottom line -- one of love, kindness and generosity. We need a progressive push for a new New Deal, which in the 21st century could be the Caring Society: 'Caring for Each Other and the Earth.' "
Is such a thing possible -- the emergence of a candidate within or outside the Democratic Party who could ignite not just the true believers but the whole country, who could give life and sexiness to the politics of empathy and eco-spirituality? Such a candidate would have to shatter the wall of mockery and cynicism that exists within the political establishment, the mainstream media and the privacy of each individual American heart in order to give political traction to the idea and possibility of a caring society.
No way, right?
But Obama himself was such a candidate. When he spoke to the enormous throngs that came to hear him, he addressed them as citizens of the world. He told 200,000 people in Berlin: "This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet."
He was not campaigning as a guy who, once elected, would surround himself with Blue Dog Dems and Bush Republicans and govern from their closed off, same old, same old view of the world.
The fact that he did -- the fact that he has either ducked the vision he articulated as a candidate or pursued an agenda directly counter to it -- led not only to the Democrats' humiliation in the November midterms but to the preposterous Tea Party phenomenon, which has turned grass-roots rage into an impotent, Fox News-sponsored pseudo-populism and allowed the same Bush-era perps who all but wrecked the country to emerge as the voice of the common man.
Lerner is crying: Wake up, Democrats! No vision, no victory! The Democrats will remain committed to losing unless a progressive candidate reclaims and reunifies the Obama base and scares the president into representing that base. I don't know if such a thing is possible, but I know that it's crucial.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
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