Robert Kuttner has a message for the President. I’m paraphrasing, but in essence, it goes like this: “Dear President Obama, You don’t need the Republican right (and they won’t support you anyway).”
Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of the American Prospect and author of the New York Times bestseller Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency, looks at the obstacles facing President Obama as he tries to enact an agenda of sweeping change (universal health care) and break with the old order (what to do about all that pesky torture?), and concludes that Obama’s biggest hurdle may be himself—and his adherence to the principles of bipartisanship and national unity.
A severe economic crisis coupled with the election of a new progressive president is an opportunity for a dramatic break with the old order. But that process doesn’t just happen spontaneously. It takes exceptional presidential resolve and leadership. And there are three huge obstacles to President Obama seizing the moment to produce fundamental change, two of them systemic and one self-inflicted.
The first systemic obstacle is the lingering political power of the old order. Practical failure doesn’t diminish political influence. On the contrary, it leads to a defensive redoubling of political resolve. We see this every day in the relentless lobbying by the financial industry against new regulations. We see it in the ongoing power of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries to block comprehensive health reform, and in the efforts of corporate America generally to resist sweeping changes in corporate governance and executive compensation. The economy has crashed, ordinary people are suffering, rightwing ideology has been disgraced–and the old order endures.
A second systemic obstacle, for now anyway, is the absence of a popular movement to put wind at a progressive president’s back. Among the logical candidates, the labor movement is weakened by the same economic crisis, divided internally, and it sorely needs Obama’s good will for everything from the Employee Free Choice Act to the auto rescue. The web of grassroots activists who came together to elect Obama is now a website of the Democratic National Committee. MoveOn.org is organizing around issues such as universal health care, but pushes on the president only gingerly. More than anything else, the stance of most progressives is still mainly gratitude.
We got a small taste of what a more radical break might feel like when Obama briefly signaled with the release of Bush’s torture memos that he might be open to further investigation of the Bush’s torture policy, but then backtracked and quickly asked the Democratic leadership to shut the idea down. Evidently, Obama’s political self wrestled with his constitutional conscience, and won. Civil libertarians felt a huge letdown, but protest was surprisingly muted.
Thus the most important obstacle for seizing the moment to achieve enduring change: Barack Obama’s conception of what it means to promote national unity. Obama repeatedly declared during the campaign that he would govern as a consensus builder. He wasn’t lying. However, there are two ways of achieving consensus. One is to split the difference with your political enemies and the forces obstructing reform. The other is to use presidential leadership to transform the political center and alter the political dynamics. In his first hundred days, Obama has done a little of both, but he defaults to the politics of accommodation.