A Good Week for America

06/28/2015 09:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2016

What an extraordinary week in the political and spiritual life of this nation.

It was a week in which President Obama found the voice that so many of us hoped we discerned in 2008; a week in which two Justices of the Supreme Court resolved that the legitimacy of the institution and their own legacy as jurists was more important than the narrow partisan agenda that Justices Roberts and Kennedy have so often carried out; a week in which liberals could feel good about ourselves and the haters of the right were thrown seriously off balance.

Yet this is one of those inflection points in American politics that could go either way. It could energize the forces of racial justice and racial healing. It could reconstitute the Supreme Court as a body that takes the Constitution seriously. The week's events could shame, embarrass and divide the political right.

Or the events of the week -- the Court upholding the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage; the racist South giving up a cherished symbol of slavery; President Obama explicitly and eloquently embracing the pain of the black experience -- could energize the haters.

Consider Obama first. His eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney was the finest expression of political and moral leadership of his presidency. Obama has spoken this candidly on race only once before as a political leader -- when his candidacy was on the line in 2008, in the Reverend Jeremiah Wright affair.

In that speech, Obama managed to thread the needle of candidly explaining the experience and the rhetoric of Reverend Wright's generation, without either condoning the things Wright had said ("God Damn America"), or quite throwing him under the bus. And in the process, Obama won praise for his skill as a leader and a truth-teller on race, and defused a potentially lethal threat to his candidacy.

For the most part, Obama has been timid about using his rhetorical gifts; timid about fighting for what he believes; reticent about engaging Congress or the nation. The exceptional moment, such as the Charleston eulogy shows what the man is capable of -- but allows himself to express only rarely.

It is just possible, now in the last 18 months of his presidency, that Obama, with not much to lose, will embrace the boldness that has eluded him for most his two terms -- on race, on gun control, on social justice generally, and on the red-state/blue state divisions that are far more severe now than when he gave the now-famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that established him as a national contender.

There was also one sour note in Obama's successes of past week. His victory in the fight to pursue a Pacific trade deal was the wrong battle for the wrong goal. Countless progressives wondered where that fighting spirit was when we needed it on so many battles that he and we lost.

There is a direct connection between the racial equality that was, paradoxically, advanced by the Charleston massacre and the economic inequality that has only worsened on Obama's watch. The more that the One Percent makes off with the lion's share of America's productivity, the more the white working class and the downwardly mobile middle class are inclined to scapegoat people of color and immigrants.

How much stronger a hand Obama would have to call America to be its best self on racial healing, if he had been a fighter all along for economic justice; if working class people of all races felt that they had a champion in him. Instead, the biggest economic battle of his second term was on behalf of a corporate wish list.

That said, there is now momentum on the progressive side. There is movement for the symbolism of taking down the Confederate battle flag to give way to substance. If Southern Republican leaders now recognize the pain that such symbols cause, how about the pain of the denial of the right to vote? How about the pain of denial of health coverage under Medicaid so that Republican leaders can score political points against Obama.

The president was eloquent in his eulogy on the subject of grace.

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It's not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God... As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we've been blind. [Applause.] He has given us the chance, where we've been lost, to find our best selves.

Well, if we as a nation were to stop with the removal of the Confederate flag from official sites, that would be cheap grace indeed. To shift the metaphor from Christian to Jewish, one thinks of the Passover song, Dayenu, which means, "It would have been enough:" If God had led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, that would have been enough; if He had given us the Torah, it would been enough. And so on. But God's blessings are infinite.

To flip the sentiment, if the Southern elite took down the flag -- that would not be enough. And if they restored the right to vote freely, that would not be enough. And if America got serious about police brutality, that would not be enough. And if conservatives stopped trying to overturn affirmative action -- that would only be the bare beginning of what we owe the descendants of slavery, segregation and continued acts of racial violence.

Which brings me to the Supreme Court. In the decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, Justice Roberts rose to the occasion with true eloquence and discernment. Justice Kennedy, author of the soaring decision on gay marriage, has displayed growth and compassion on a range of issues. Even in dissent, in the gay marriage decision Justice Roberts acknowledged what a momentous shift the acceptance of same-sex marriage was and is.

Justice Scalia was revealed, even more than before, as a petty, vindictive crank. His cheap, personal put-downs of Kennedy and Roberts in dissent can hardly serve to win them over in future decisions.

Here again, if the Court really wants to atone for past sins, Roberts and Kennedy might revisit the absurd decision throwing out key sections of the Voting Rights Act on the premise that racist denial of the right to vote was no longer a problem; and the equally bizarre decision equating money with speech. They have now had time for penitence -- to see the real-world consequences of their handiwork and consider just how wrong they were, not just on the Constitution but on how politics actually operates.

Still to come will be a decision on affirmative action, where past signals have suggested that the Roberts Court is ready to overturn it. After Charleston, and the national conversation that the massacre has opened, this would not be the moment to destroy the society's ability to very partially remediate past oppression.

All in all, a good week for everything decent in America. But only the bare beginnings of the progress we need to make. President Obama needs to keep following that inner light. The new Supreme Court majority needs to continue aiming higher than narrow partisanship. And the rest of us need to broaden the struggle for economic as well as racial justice.


Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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