THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Year One: The Public Is A Trust, Not An Option

The one-year anniversary of Barack Obama's exhilarating victory offers endless political assessments and reminders of that historic election night. For many Americans, 11/4 of last year was the hopeful antidote to 9/11, a riveting game changer for our country's political future.

But now in this fall season, many wonder how much the Obama presidency is a clear break from the recent past. On key policy issues -- financial reform, the bank bailout, health-care, Afghanistan, and government secrecy -- progressive hopes and proposals have often been dashed or painfully slowed.

Where the Obama administration has fallen short in our hopes for a truly new direction, one finds the central conflict between public good and private gain.

Let's start with the basics: the President and members of Congress are elected by the people, in a sacred public trust, to act as public servants by representing the public good. Or at least that's what we were (or should have been) taught in civics.

The reality, of course, is that the democratic ideal is vastly compromised by accumulated wealth and concentrated power.

This basic tension is most visible in the fight over health-care reform. We have seen the president back-off from supporting a robust public option that would provide competition to private insurers and reign in premium costs. The Obama team has breezily cut backroom deals with the pharmaceutical industry and the hospital lobby to limit cost reductions for the public. Now we read how the currently proposed public option in Congress might only apply to two percent of Americans by 2019.

The health-care debate, together with the billions funneled to bankers while failing to impose any meaningful financial reform, pushes us to ask the Administration and members of Congress: which side are you on?

President Obama is a wonderful advocate and supporter of public service for young Americans. But when it comes to the grand public policy choices, we need to ask: are you truly serving the public good? Is your allegiance to the interests of Main Street or Wall Street? These do not seem to be questions troubling Rahm Emanuel or Tim Geithner.

Many of us do realize the need to distinguish between disappointment and disillusion. We knew it would not be easy, given the grave landscape inherited by the Obama team and the intransigent opposition he would face. Some also forget the centrist inclinations of candidate Obama.

As in the Reagan/Bush years, we know that politics cannot be a spectator sport, and frustrated citizens must follow the bumper sticker dictum: "Don't Mourn, Organize!" In the past few months, community organizing around the public option has indeed been impressive in many congressional districts across the country, forcing Congress to put real reform back on the table for debate.

As I argued a year ago, we are the ones who have to insure that the Obama Administration places the public interest first:

Unfortunately, the arc of presidencies does not bend towards greater justice and equality, nor towards changing the ways of doing the "people's business". The corruptions of power eat away daily as the will for change is negotiated and inevitably compromised. "Change you can believe in" must be sustained by the many hands and feet who pedaled this movement.

To tap into that moment, check out the new HBO documentary premiering this week, By The People: The Election of Barack Obama, which captures the passion and spirited sense of public purpose of Obama organizers and volunteers during the campaign. It serves as a reminder of the power that everyday citizens have to change the course of our nation's political story.

We should thus recognize that the Obama presidency is not the endgame, but rather a gateway for expanding the common good and shaping a new politics over the generation to come.

So, one year after the election, what do you think Candidate Obama would think of President Obama? Tweet your response (our Twitter hashtag is #OneYearLater), or post it in the comments section.