Progressives may sometimes feel like they're in a backdoor high-school affair with the president. You know the kind: The popular kid will make out with someone from the wrong side of the tracks. But he'll only take a rich kid from "the right kind of family" to the school dance.
The president often courts the left when he needs it, only to pitch his actions to the right at clinch time. Right-wing ideology is often mistakenly called the "center" today, despite holding views that are so conservative they're often rejected by Republicans as well as Democrats. But it's the right all the same.
Lately the president has made some significant moves toward the left, but the response has been cool in some progressive corners. The skepticism's understandable. His 2008 platform was progressive too, but after he was elected he tacked sharply right without even bothering to explain the shift. Progressives don't want to keep feeling like the kid who 'puts out' in the backseat of a convertible and then is all alone on prom night.
But if you believe (as I do) that the progressive movement should be independent of Barack Obama and the Democrats, then the decision to work with them should be made strategically. There are times to oppose them, but there are also times to support, encourage, and persuade them.
The president's new progressive moves aren't enough, and they're still watered down with unproductive and unpopular rightwing notions. But they are a move in the right direction. He deserves some credit for that. The progressive movement does too. So what's next?
The Right Left, the Wrong Right
There's no need to rehash all the mistakes of the last three years. The president and his advisors still cling to the mistaken idea that, as one of them told the Washington Post, "Fighting might make liberal groups feel good, but it isn't reasonable."
This "reasonableness" has led to Congressional gridlock, the appearance of weakness, and ongoing economic misery after inadequate steps were taken. The result is plunging approval numbers for the president, a disaffected base, and a surprisingly vulnerable re-election campaign. The White House has mistakenly assumed that we're still in the nineties, where you could win elections by rejecting the "Sistah Souljah left" and appealing to the "center."
That was two recessions, one financial crisis, two wars, and several million jobs ago. What the White House is hopefuly beginning to realize is that the 'left' is the new center. The president's proposed jobs act contains progressive ideas like closing corporate loopholes that are actually popular with a majority of Republicans. (So was the public option in healthcare.) And large majorities of Americans support his proposed millionaire's tax, another 'progressive' idea.
Fighting for these ideas won't just please 'liberal groups' - who seem to be a particular source of White House resentment. They'll please most Americans. In some cases, they'll please a majority of Republicans too . Hopefully the White House has begun to read the polls and reports that these 'liberal groups' (including our own, the Campaign for America's Future) has been giving them for years.
Perhaps the White House has come to understand that today's GOP, and the cynically compromised corporate mavens who compromise the so-called "bipartisan center," are unscrupulous and untrustworthy. The Administration has spent three years trying to please the wrong right, an intractable group of self-promoting radicals, while ignoring the right "left" - a progressive movement that has come to speak for the American majority on jobs, taxes, Social Security, and Medicare.
The Wrong Right
Case in point: The president appointed two right-wingers to run his Deficit Commission, a misguided effort that focused on spending cuts while the nation continued to struggle with lost jobs and frozen wages. Democrat Erskine Bowles is a Director of Morgan Stanley, the Wall Street firm whose brokers like to brag that "I ripped his face off" after taking advantage of one of their own clients.
That's right: The Democratic co-chair helps direct a firm whose brokers brag violently about taking advantage of its own clients.
The other co-chair was radical Social Security hater Alan Simpson, who yesterday turned on the president with an angry tirade about 'an abrogation of leadership, a vacancy of leadership."
"You can't get this done without hits across the board," said Simpson, who has adamantly opposed tax increases for millionaires or corporations as part of the "hits across the board." Simpson's also pushed for Social Security benefit cuts from seniors who have already taken "hits" like the eligibility age, which is already increasing as scheduled, and cost of living adjustments that don't keep pace with living expenses for seniors and the disabled.
The president has also learned that Congressional Republicans are dedicated to nothing so much as his own failure, even if that failure means extended economic misery for millions of Americans. The handful of GOP representatives who might work with them are hostages to the Tea Party and the radical right. That makes the president's rightward moves futile.
Now Barack Obama has begun taking some steps toward the progressive positions that define the new American center. His American Jobs Act balances some ineffective cuts with some excellent moves toward direct spending on infrastructure, the millionaire's tax, and other popular measures. He has backed off his offers to cut Social Security and Medicare, and has even started to use progressive economic analyses that explain what's really going on with those programs.
He told a Latino voters' meeting, for example, that "The way social security is set up, the (cost of living adjustment) is made automatically but over the last two years, because of the recession, it hasn't happened. We tried to provide an extra check to those receiving social security checks to make up for the loss but it didn't pass through Congress."
That's a welcome break from recent statements that those cost-of-living adjustments could be adjusted downward without serious harm to seniors or the disabled. And it's sweet talk, for sure. But "prom night" happens when the president and other Democrats act, not when they speak. How can progressives make sure we get better actions, and better election results?
The president hit a lot of progressive talking points in his recent speech to the Congressional Black Caucus. Then he seemed to lecture his audience: "I am going to press on for jobs. I'm going to press on for equality. I'm going to press on for the sake of our children. I'm going to press on for the sake of all those families who are struggling right now. I don't have time to feel sorry for myself. I don't have time to complain. I am going to press on.
"I expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on."
Many of those in his audience had been "pressing on" without recognition or reward for more years than the president has been alive, and some of them found these remarks condescending and inappropriate. But they'll work with him anyway. All he has to do is "shake off" his 90's-era obsession with right-wing "centrist" ideas, put on his job-creating shoes, and press on.
How can he and his party be guided in that effort? We need an independent movement to push for better (and more popular) policies. It should be centered around the kinds of positions reflected in the Contract for the American Dream - positions that end Wall Street recklessness, end two expensive and unproductive wars, create jobs, encourage growth, and rebuild the middle class.
This movement can help encourage genuinely progressive politicians at the local, state, and national levels. Because it's independent, it can also keep the pressure up to make sure they carry out their promises. The president and his staff seem to resent pressure from the left, but they're responding - and his new left-leaning approach could help him, too.
That still leaves a lot of questions unanswered: How should this independent movement be organized? How much of its efforts should be "inside the Beltway" and how much should focus on the rest of the country? Is there a role for a third party? How can the labor movement help - and be helped - by sucha a movement? How can grassroots actions like the Wisconsin sit-ins and #OccupyWallStreet be supported and expanded? Do we need primary challenges in 2012 or later?
Those questions and others are the reason why we're gathering next week in Washington to have a series of in-depth conversations.
But a little self-congratulation is in order, along with the soul-searching. Four years ago the country elected a different kind of president -- one with some explicitly progressive positions - and gave him both houses of Congress. That's a pretty huge accomplishment, whatever's happened since.
Since then we've seen the uprisings in Wisconsin, the failure of austerity economics in Europe, and the sudden appearance of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Like the old saying goes, this could be the start of something big. In other words, it's almost prom night. Once the dancing starts, will progressives follow ... or lead?