After the (Grand Old) Party: Don't Go Home Just Yet

12/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Party

Last Tuesday, after President-Elect Obama poetically declared victory in the 2008 presidential election, a chanting & dancing crowd of thousands remained in front of the White House until the wee hours. Celebrations erupted not just in every quadrant of the capital, or even every major city in the country, but all over the planet -- including Antarctica.

Legions of Obama supporters across America made contributions that, together, broke records in both dollars and volunteer hours, propelling his candidacy from the middle of a crowded primary to the Oval Office. Together, we overcame the divisions left in the wake of a grueling primary; at least one thwarted right-wing assassination plot; and sustained campaigns to reinforce racial tensions, cast suspicion on Obama's allegiances, and malign ethnic & religious minorities. Like his domestic supporters, the international revelers celebrating Obama's election included people from every demographic.

Why Change Happens...

But while the crowds chanting, "Yes, we did!" are entitled to celebrate (as did a horde of we musicians in the streets of DC), it behooves us all to recall President-elect Obama's own words: "Change happens because the American people demand it." His success is a quintessential reflection of that principle. Without the decentralized support base that enabled him to shatter fundraising & mobilization records, Obama could never have overcome the once-unassailable Clinton campaign.

If the crowds celebrating Obama's victory go home in 2009, his Administration will achieve disappointing results. The President-Elect will confront a variety of national and global crises, as well as entrenched forces in Washington that will impede his agenda.

...and What Still Stands in the Way

Obama will confront numerous national and global crises, as well as forces within Washington -- and even his own Administration -- that will stand in his way.

Crises abound. The escalating costs of two wars eroded both the nation's military and our Treasury long before an already historic economic crisis recently added mounting pressure. Meanwhile, the climate crisis calls for an international response, yet international institutions like the U.N. have been long marginalized by Obama's unilateral predecessors.

Meanwhile, an array of institutions impeding change await Obama in Washington: an entrenched moderate consensus in Congress (and the filibuster of Senate Republicans), a civil service bureaucracy eroded by years of politicized hiring & appointments, and a self-aggrandizing and increasingly politicized Supreme Court.

In addition, several senior executive officials from the Bush era many continue to serve in the Obama Administration. For instance, Bush appointees who will remain in place include FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Admiral and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Each of them hold crucial positions with enormous influence within the Executive branch and could impede the new Administration's agenda.

Furthermore, advisors to Obama have suggested that Robert Gates remain in place as Defense Secretary. Gates is a vast improvement over his predecessor in terms of independence, credibility, and professionalism. But he is a far cry from the best choice, especially for a President who largely owes his victory in the primaries to a movement opposing the War in Iraq.

Nuanced Struggles the News Might Miss

Beyond institutional obstacles to his agenda, Obama will also face several strategic decisions that could come to define his presidency.

First is executive power, which the Bush Administration aggrandized through excessive secrecy and assertions of privileges against inquiries from courts or Congress; overbroad and opaque signing statements; detention and surveillance programs that violated international law and the Constitution; politicized prosecutions; and unilateral policies on war, energy, and the environment that offended Democratic principles, as well as the the international community. Meaningful change will require the restoration of limits on executive power to achieve a balance place among the separated powers of Congress and the Judiciary.

But on the other hand, achieving substantive changes in the various policy areas that concern voters may require Obama to leverage every iota of executive power that remains legitimate. The effort to trim the executive's sails without stalling the Administration's mandate will emerge as a tightrope act demanding extraordinary foresight and care.

A step back from Washington's day-to-day dramas also recalls the role of the conservative and politicized Supreme Court, which -- if history is any guide -- will continue to pursue its radical agenda in a fundamentally illegitimate fashion, imposing its view of the law on contrived bases applied inconsistently across cases to limit progressive measures by Congress and the President. Whether, and how, to balance the Court is a key decision facing the Administration that could transform the future.

Cause for Concern: the Washington Consensus Within the White House

Beyond the obstacles a progressive President would face, it remains unclear on what issues Obama is willing to spend his massive political capital. During the campaign, he announced positions on several issues that proved profoundly incongruous with his rhetoric of change.

For instance, in his capacity as a Senator, Obama bowed to right-wing pressure on domestic surveillance. He first pledged to filibuster the FISA legislation authorizing unconstitutional intrusions on the privacy of law-abiding Americans -- which we have since learned included trivial and crass eavesdropping on even U.S. servicemembers. But he ultimately voted not only to approve warrantless wiretapping, but also to insulate from accountability the private corporations that enabled the scheme. Obama also claimed a unilateral right to invade northwest Pakistan, a stunningly short-sighted strategy based on the same infamous errors of the Bush Administration's military approach to the War on Terror elsewhere.

There are several alternative approaches that President Obama could take. Now that the campaign is over, he may enjoy greater flexibility to adopt them.

On surveillance, Obama could reject executive fiat by submitting warrantless wiretapping programs to meaningful congressional oversight and at least disclosing the other unconfirmed programs that remain secret. That position would better fit with his principled repudiation of torture and detention: Obama has long affirmed habeas corpus and its applicability to military detainees.

On national security, he could replace President Bush's appointments, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and instead turn to former generals Wesley Clark or Colin Powell. He could also heed the plan proposed by Vice President-elect Biden and Senator Lugar (R-IN), which would recraft the relationship between Washington and Islamabad to force transparency on the Pakistani military establishment and refocus on the basic popular needs like food and roads. Extending support for democracy by ending support for dictators across the Muslim world would better fit Obama's willingness to restore diplomatic relationships with antagonists like Iran and Syria (which, in case anyone missed it, we recently invaded).

The Culture Wars and Presidential Limits

Beyond constraints in Washington and potential dissent within the new Administration, the nation also continues to face deep cultural rifts beyond Obama's reach.

On the same night that Americans world-historically elected the first post-colonial leader of a superpower, Californians viciously rejected marriage equality, denying millions of Californians the established constitutional right to marry the partner of their choice. Even more dejecting was the crucial role played by church-going people of color duped into undermining their own interests by setting a precedent to rescind and rollback civil rights.

In this context, even a President willing to engage can do only so much. The Clinton Administration in 1992 proposed to allow gays in the military to serve openly, and was ultimately forced to settle for the openly discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy after encountering widespread opposition. Similarly, Democrats promoting gun control unwittingly helped propel the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1990s. Obama is well aware of Clinton's example, and will likely choose only those political battles he can win.

No President can refashion the landscape of a society alone. There remains work to be done.

A Beginning, Not an End

Grassroots progressives propelled Obama into office, but we must continue to voice our interests to reiterate & strengthen his mandate. On some issues, like surveillance and militarism, we must pressure the Administration not to pander to a consensus crafted by a conservative establishment. On others, like anti-discrimination enforcement or climate change, the Obama Administration will rely on popular support in order to overcome institutional obstacles in Washington.

A progressive agenda is achievable, but will require continued grassroots pressure and mobilization. As Michael Moore put it, "We can wrestle our economy out of the hands of the reckless rich and return it to the people....Every citizen can be guaranteed health care....We can stop melting the polar ice caps....[but] we really don't have much time."

The act of staying engaged, of supporting Obama beyond the election and laying the foundation for policies reflecting our interests, is both as simple - and as complicated - as participating in the civic life of our society. It includes community organizing (to which the President-Elect traces his political roots); fundraising for grassroots and non-profit groups; hosting block parties; convening discussion groups, documentary screenings and study circles; pursuing service learning opportunities; reaching out across generations and ethnic & faith boundaries; direct action; and coordinating letter-to-the-editor campaigns. Ultimately, "any action may prove more consequential than it seems at first."

President Obama knows this, and has called on all Americans to fulfill our constitutional role for precisely this reason: "this victory truly belongs[A]s we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime -- two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century....The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep....but...we as a people will get there."

And the opportunity is far greater than merely empowering the next President.

A Chance to Claim a "Permanent Majority"

Last Tuesday's defeat of Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT) could ultimately prove as momentous as Obama's victory. Without Shays and his former colleagues championing principled conservative interests, and without any GOP House members representing New England, the Republican party runs the risk of increasing ideological isolation and has become relegated to electoral insignificance in the Northeast.

A political monopoly by Democrats in that region could support progressive interests in the short-run. However, the GOP could be structurally marginalized if a party emerged on the west coast or the northeast to challenge Democrats from the left. Were a new tension (for example, between Democrats and either Greens or Libertarians) to grow more salient to regional election results than the stale tension between Dems and Republicans, the national policy discourse would shift -- and with it, over time, so would "moderate" political attitudes.

French sociologist Maurice Duverger established in the 1950s and 1960s that elections based on the single-member district plurality method that we use to count votes necessarily reinforce the position of two dominant parties. He noted that political attitudes are distributed on a bell curve, and that strategic pressures force parties to compete for votes by advancing positions high on the curve.

In Hawaii, Obama was preferred 72% over 26% for McCain -- nearly a 3-to-1 margin. The nation's capital city voted 93% for Obama, versus 7% for McCain. It's not implausible for a Green candidate to overcome so marginal a Republican showing (as the DC Statehood-Green Party's mayoral candidate nearly did in 2006), and with a consistent appearance in second place comes media attention.

In turn, media frames the public discourse and, over time, constructs social & political attitudes. For example, conservative talk radio played a crucial role over the course of a generation in helping support the religious right and its political avatars like Sarah Palin. Similarly, television and the film industry have done a great deal to humanize the LGBT community for many Americans.

While corporate-supporting moderates and committed progressives struggle over the Democratic party, Republicans remain riven between neo-conservative fascists and small-government libertarians. In this context, the emergence of a credible progressive voice on the national political landscape could transform its geography for generations by shifting the center.

Today's Opportunity vs. Gingrich's Over-Reach

In the 1990s, then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich argued that the Republican Party had attained a "permanent majority" that would relegate the Democratic Party to essential irrelevance. On the one hand, predictions of the GOP's collapse may appear to risk the same historical error as Gingrich's prediction. But 2008 is distinguishable from 1994.

In 1994, the Members of Congress who swung the House to Republican rule won their elections -- and subsequently governed -- based on an assertive conservative ideology. The rejection of their dominance in the 2006 and 2008 elections ultimately reflects popular disillusion with the GOP's over-reach.

In contrast, today's Democratic leadership in Congress is decidedly centrist. To the extent it risks popular disillusion, it is that of its progressive base, not with moderates alienated by an agenda-driven approach to politics. With Democrats firmly gripping the center, the wings of the electoral bell curve are up for grabs. A party aggressively defending civil liberties and seeking opportunities to help working people will find fertile electoral soil on the coasts.

Thinking on a generational scale helps reveal other changes wrought by Obama's election. In addition to its widely discussed hope for helping heal race relations, it will also transform John Kerry's historical legacy. A candidate who resigned his own anti-war legacy and failed to vindicate the tragic legacy of Al Gore, Kerry will one day be remembered for his prescience in giving Obama his first national exposure, setting him on his course to the White House.

The Need to Keep up the Heat

As it sweeps into the Washington, the Obama Administration could spell the beginning of a new era in American politics. But it will need our help.

Grassroots mobilization may not be sufficient to remove all of Obama's obstacles, but it remains at least necessary. Without continuing pressure from civil society, Obama will face constraints imposed by the moderate Congress, the right-wing Court, and holdovers from the Bush years within his Administration and the federal bureaucracy.

But continued pressure could change everything. Moderates in Congress will either heed the emerging progressive consensus, or yield their seats. Holdovers from the prior Administration will recognize that their own political and historical futures depend on supporting the President's agenda, rather than predictably impeding it.

And even if it fails to inspire the Court to take seriously the constitutional limits its role, popular pressure could at least embolden the President to intervene (as I propose in my ongoing Bush v. Gore series, which will ultimately propose a concrete plan for the Administration to balance the Court). Obama will confront the Court only if his base begins to clamor for the restoration of civil rights, constitutional transparency & consistency, judicial impartiality, and checks on judicial aggrandizement.

Finally, if Obama's supporters remain engaged and continue to advance progressive interests by building credible third party alternatives in regions where Democrats are dominant, we could witness the end of the Republican Party as a national force and a return to sanity in our national discourse.

As we have proven to ourselves, the world, and Washington: Yes, we can, indeed.