06/15/2012 05:14 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

How Progress Happens

The thrilling announcement from the Obama administration that they are going to stop targeting DREAM Act-eligible young people for deportation is a reminder of what progress requires in America: first, a movement that never stops fighting for justice; and second, a President with progressives in his base who is open to change. Presidents rarely change important things unless an effective movement presses them to do it, and movements with a conservative President in office rarely win anything that matters because the conservative base wouldn't let it happen.

This change in deportation policy happened because immigrants' rights groups wouldn't back down, kept banging away, and had the courage to confront a President who at times got very irritable under the pressure. It didn't happen when Bush was in office even though Bush and Rove wanted desperately to resolve the immigration issue to give Republicans an opening to the fastest growing demographic group in the country, because the conservative base wouldn't stand for it; and if Romney is elected, he will backtrack on this policy because of that same anti-immigrant base. But even an irritable, reluctant President with a center-left coalition and a movement that won't shut up ended up moving forward with this policy.

Don't hold Obama's reluctance against Obama, though -- it is woven into the very essence of American history that Presidents don't make these historic changes easily. There are reasons that things are the way they are, usually deep and dense political reasons, and a President that needs to win 51 percent of voters across a wide spectrum of states and regions, and raise huge amounts of money to run a massive national campaign, doesn't generally rush to shake up the status quo. The Presidents we revere historically for making progressive change weren't exactly eager to do so. Abraham Lincoln did not go into office wanting or intending to emancipate the slaves. Teddy Roosevelt was open to reform but did little to nothing about food safety until the pressure kept building from the muckrakers and the book "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair. Woodrow Wilson did nothing to help women's suffrage until women started chaining themselves to the White House gate and getting arrested. FDR had to be constantly pushed by the labor movement to help on their agenda. And Jack and Bobby Kennedy had no plans to make civil rights a central issue in their legacy until the civil rights movement forced them to act.

What those Presidents do deserve credit for, though, is being open to reform and change. The Presidents before Lincoln were unalterably opposed to making progress on the slavery issue, and in fact slavery kept getting more and more brutal as the years went on. The two Presidents immediately before Teddy Roosevelt were as pro-corporate trust as any in American history, and things kept getting worse for workers and farmers in spite of the populist uprising. The Republican Presidents in the 1920s before FDR hated labor and did everything in their power to destroy it. And Dwight Eisenhower, while forced to act in Little Rock, was completely uninterested and unhelpful in civil rights in spite of the movement that was rising up throughout the South. It took presidents willing to respond to movements that made the changes for the better that were made.

This is why I work for and fight for Democrats, in spite of all my frustrations with them over the years: progress is possible if Democrats are elected, because Democrats have a progressive base that is at the heart of their electoral coalition, and they have to remain open to change. With center-left Presidents and a strong movement, progress is possible. With Presidents who have to toe the line for the conservative movement, no progress is possible. If Obama is re-elected, will I be frustrated and even infuriated some of the time? I guarantee it. Probably in the lame duck session if not before, I will be tearing my hair out over deals I don't think should be done. But I will also have moments of the kind of joy I had today thinking of all those young people raised in this country who no longer have to spend every day of their lives worried about deportation. I will have more moments like the ones when my gay and lesbian friends started calling me and emailing me with joy when Don't Ask Don't Tell got repealed. I will have more moments like the one I had when Elizabeth Warren called me with joy in her voice to tell me the deal finally got done in conference committee on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. I have trouble imagining a single moment like that in the four years of a Mitt Romney term. Meanwhile progressives would have to fight a desperate uphill war to try and stave off the Ryan budget and all the devastation it would wreak in this economy.

Today, America became a more just and honorable place. We have another milestone in our nation's history of progress. It wouldn't have happened without a brave and determined movement, and a President open to be moved.