Machinery of Progress

What President Barack Obama needs to do is .... No, let's try this again. The problem with Barack Obama is ....

Stop! I can't bear to read another column that starts like that, much less write one. As the administration's first year in office comes to an end, the most distinctive thing about it is the degree to which people who should long ago have outgrown Great Man theories of history remain transfixed by a single individual. Every success is interpreted as a measure of Obama's skills and priorities; every disappointment is read as a revelation of his excess caution, naiveté, or other flaws.

No doubt the president is one of the most compelling figures in American political history, perhaps more interesting as a person than any occupant of the White House since his moral opposite, Richard Nixon. His combination of political skill, intellect, discipline, confidence, and command of language is unprecedented, and his theory of politics, which brought with it the first actual Democratic electoral majority since 1976, may have changed the parameters of political possibility. It's hard to take your eyes off that phenomenon.

But even world-historical figures color within lines that they do not draw themselves. What presidents, governors, or even legislators are willing and able to do is defined by forces and efforts outside of themselves. And for progressive politicians, those factors include the condition and power of the progressive coalition and its organizations -- its ability to generate and refine ideas, as well as its organizational capacity to bring pressure to bear on the political system. Every success or failure can be seen as a measure of the strength or weakness of that infrastructure.

Consider, for example, the widely predicted possibility that the only major accomplishment of the current Democratic majority before the midterm election will be an imperfect version of health-care reform, while financial reform, cap-and-trade, and long-term economic-investment strategies are blocked or delayed. If that occurs, is it simply that the president didn't give enough priority to those other causes?

That's one possible explanation. Another would be that the work underlying the current health-reform effort began years before Obama even announced his campaign for the White House. Drawing on the lessons of past failures, when reform had no organized constituency, advocates and funders put massive resources into groups such as Health Care for America Now. They picked up political scientist Jacob Hacker's idea of a public plan within a structured insurance marketplace and developed it to give progressive advocates of a single-payer system something politically realistic that they could get behind. And they worked to ensure that all the Democratic candidates for president (with the exception of single-payer stalwart Rep. Dennis Kucinich) converged around roughly the same basic model. Years of health-reform-policy development, projects to improve public awareness of health reform, and advocacy campaigns were able to lay the groundwork for health reform well in advance. It was never going to be easy, but the best possible mechanism for achieving the long-thwarted goal was constructed for the president to flip the switch.

Compare that with the slow and meandering path to financial-regulatory reform. Yes, it's possible Obama doesn't see the urgency of it, or maybe his economic advisers are too cautious or subservient to Goldman Sachs. But it also matters that few liberals were working on this cause before the Wall Street collapse. No coherent alternative model had been developed, and no effort had been made to build a constituency for financial reform. While we had think tanks keeping tabs on various aspects of the economy, from the federal budget to the labor market, no one was systematically watching the development of super--complicated financial institutions, noting the risk posed by financial derivatives and promoting alternatives. A counterpart to the health-reform effort, Americans for Financial Reform, was launched this year but obviously it has a lot of catching up to do.

None of this is to forgive Obama his errors of commission or omission. But just as his campaign was built on a base of organizing, online activism, and civic engagement that preceded him, so the success of his presidency and this Congress will depend on the strength of the progressive infrastructure. If progressives don't support these structures for policy development and advocacy, further failure will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the fault will lie not in our star but in ourselves.

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