This magazine declared the dawn of 2009 "Our Moment." The election of Barack Obama and a Democratic majority offered progressives a chance to deal with decades of deferred maintenance on the American dream. Our agenda included tackling long-standing priorities, undoing Bush-era debacles, and taking up new ideas that emerged from both our movement and from Obama himself.
How much was achieved before the 2010 election -- and how much is possible in the remaining two years of Obama's term? As The New York Times notes, "Many liberal activists regularly complain that their most fundamental issues remain largely unaddressed." Others note that Obama's first two years were the most productive for a Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson.
In the dropdown menu that follows, we take a clear-eyed look at the state of the progressive agenda.
REGULATE BIG BANKS
WHOSE GOAL? The financial crisis made reform imperative, and both parties share the blame for the deregulatory policies that contributed to it.
PROGRESS SO FAR: Last summer, Obama signed the Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill, which overhauled Wall Street rules and regulations, formed a new agency to protect consumers, and created a mechanism to liquidate -- rather than bail out -- failing banks, no matter their size.
SPIN: "There will be no more tax-funded bailouts -- period," Obama said when signing the law. Replied House Republican Leader John Boehner, "The legislation the president is signing today provides permanent bailouts for his Wall Street allies."
THE REAL STORY: While Obama and Democratic leaders pushed for strong reform, Republicans explicitly allied themselves with banks. While the bill does make future bailouts unlikely, progressives worry that moderate Dems forced too many compromises.
WHAT'S POSSIBLE? Implementing reform and writing new rules are the next battleground. Key appointments, including the leaders of a new consumer agency and the country's main bank regulator, also await action.
LAST WORD: "Too big to fail has not gone away with the passage of the landmark Dodd-Frank bill," said retiring Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware in his final Senate speech. "Regulators will need to limit the size, complexity, and riskiness of megabanks."
KEEP THE INTERNET OPEN WITH NET NEUTRALITY
WHOSE GOAL? Obama and FCC Chair Julius Genachowski both claim to support the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally -- long a priority for the "netroots" left and consumer groups. The big telecom companies hate the idea.
PROGRESS SO FAR: The FCC brokered talks with the big phone, cable, and Internet providers but got nowhere. In the vacuum, Verizon and Google alarmed activists by drafting their own plan, which fell far short of real net neutrality.
SPIN: FCC Chief of Staff Edward Lazarus says, "All options remain on the table as we continue to seek broad input on this vital issue."
THE REAL STORY: The FCC has staggering power to act but is facing increased pressure from Congress not to do so.
WHAT'S POSSIBLE? The administration seems unwilling to lay down the law on this issue, and Republicans have no interest in limiting the profits of the most politically connected companies in America.
LAST WORD: Net neutrality has a "zero to 5 percent chance in Congress," says Tim Wu, author of The Master Switch. "It now depends entirely on the FCC."
ENDS WARS IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISATAN
WHOSE GOAL? Obama has long declared Iraq the wrong war and Afghanistan worth pursuing to the end. He pledged to "begin to remove our troops from Iraq immediately" and to "deploy at least two additional brigades to Afghanistan to ... support NATO's efforts against the Taliban" -- with the eventual goal of withdrawing.
PROGRESS SO FAR: Combat troops left Iraq in August, but a provisional force of 50,000 remains. As for Afghanistan, Obama increased the U.S. commitment by 30,000 troops after an agonizing review process. Then he pushed back the deadline for handing over control to Afghans another three years, to 2014.
SPIN: The notion of Afghanistan as the "right war" is more of a campaign line than a reality. The administration still says it is committed to ending that war, even as an exit strategy seems to recede into a Vietnam-like mist.
THE REAL STORY: On Iraq, credit Obama for sticking with the huge troop drawdown. On Afghanistan, the review process took months, revealed huge internal disagreements, and left us with a choice that the military seems to have forced on the president.
WHAT'S POSSIBLE? It's all about Afghanistan now, and the White House seems trapped by its choice. Progressives argue for faster withdrawal, but the complexities of the Taliban and Pakistan's instability leave no easy options.
LAST WORD: "[Obama]'s not going to ... pull the rug out from under the commander and the troops, and lose Republican support on the Hill," said Brookings' Bruce Riedel, at a Brookings Institution event.
UNIVERSAL HEALTH INSURANCE WITH A PUBLIC OPTION
WHOSE GOAL? Every Democratic candidate in 2008, except Dennis Kucinich, embraced the same rough outline for reform -- a breakthrough after years of inaction on this issue.
PROGRESS SO FAR: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was signed on March 23, 2010. Despite the lack of a public option, it is the most notable domestic achievement since Medicare and Medicaid.
SPIN: Many progressives think too many compromises were made and that insurers got too much. Republicans vow repeal, but the changes they campaigned on (such as ending Medicare cuts) are costly.
THE REAL STORY: Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel led a White House faction doubtful a big push on health reform would succeed, and wanted to go small. After a Massachusetts Senate loss terrified Dems, Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted on pushing ahead. Give her the LBJ credit.
WHAT'S POSSIBLE? Dangers lurk everywhere. Republicans will try to obstruct funding for implementation, repeal the individual mandate, and block insurance regulations. GOP governors will refuse to set up state insurance exchanges.
LAST WORD: "GOP determination to attack 'Obamacare' will make for good theater, but the real action is in the implementation processes," says Theda Skocpol, co-author of Health Care Reform and American Politics. "There's a lot of room to shape distinctive state-level arrangements."
REDUCE AND SECURE NUCLEAR WEAPONS
WHOSE GOAL? There's been little talk of this issue since the "No nukes" movement of the 1980s, but it's been an Obama passion since college, when he denounced the"twisted logic" of arms policy.
PROGRESS SO FAR: Obama's Nuclear Posture Review restored the "no first use" policy. The administration also came to anagreement with Russia on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
SPIN: Echoes of the Carter era: John Bolton leads a band of neocons warning that New START is "unilateral disarmament."
THE REAL STORY: Obama is passionate about reducing nukes, and he's sticking to his beliefs despite GOP opposition.
WHAT'S POSSIBLE? If Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl can be bought off with billions for his pet cause of modernizing the nuclear-weapons complex, New START might get a start.
LAST WORD: "They've accomplished modest, but overdue, ad-justments to U.S. nuclear weapons policy and a fun-damental change in how we talk about the danger," says Jeffrey Lewis of ArmsControlWonk.com.
PRICE CARBON AND REDUCING EMISSIONS
WHOSE GOAL? Obama promised, "My presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process." Progressives were convinced that he "got it" on cap-and-trade and the danger of climate change.
PROGRESS SO FAR: Cap-and-trade legislation passed the House -- a small miracle -- but it failed to reach the Senate floor after Lindsey Graham, the necessary Republican co-sponsor, bailed out.
SPIN: Cap-and-trade is dead, but Obama says it was "a means, not an end. And I'm going to be looking for other means to address this problem."
THE REAL STORY: Health reform and cap-and-trade both needed the full support of the administration, but only one got it. Was Graham alienated by White House fumbling, as he claims, or was he never really committed? Even with his support, the votes might never have been there.
WHAT'S POSSIBLE? Look for less ambitious, piecemeal legislation, EPA work-arounds, and more obstruction by Democrats, especially those from energy-industry-heavy states, led by West Virginia's new senator, Joe Manchin.
LAST WORD: "The politics is stalled; the physics and chemistry are moving fast, creating havoc around the planet," says Bill McKibben, author of, most recently, Earth. "We have to build a movement big enough to seize the next political opening, whenever it may come."
RAISE TAXES ON RICH -- NOT WORKING FAMILIES
WHOSE GOAL? For progressives worried about income inequality and moderate Dems concerned about the deficit, Bush's tax cuts are to blame for both. Obama promised to keep taxes low for middle-class Americans while rolling back upper-income tax rates to Clinton-era levels.
PROGRESS SO FAR: Right away, a majority of Americans got a tax cut through the Making Work Pay tax credit in the stimulus bill. Obama expanded Medicare taxes for the wealthy and began taxing high-end health-insurance plans to fund health-care reform. Republicans and conservative Democrats blocked action on the Bush cuts.
SPIN: "We don't want that tax increase to go forward for the middle class," presidential adviser David Axelrod said. Does that mean the White House will cave and let the cuts continue for everyone? House Whip Eric Cantor says, "Taxes shouldn't be going up on anybody right now."
THE REAL STORY: The White House can't get moderate Democrats in the Senate to vote to raise taxes on their wealthy constituents -- even though the move is overwhelmingly popular with the American people. Gridlock would mean the complete expiration of the Bush tax cuts.
WHAT'S POSSIBLE? There's the slimmest possibility of comprehensive tax reform -- lower rates and a broader tax base, or a sales tax -- as part of a deficit bargain.
LAST WORD: "Both parties risk a huge backlash if they don't act," writes the Tax Policy Center's Howard Gleckman. "That's why I'm betting Congress extends the tax cuts for just a few months so they can resume their bickering again next spring."
REFORM IMMIGRATION LAWS
WHOSE GOAL? Comprehensive immigration reform seemed inevitable in 2008, with both major party candidates supporting some version.
PROGRESS SO FAR: Sen. Lindsey Graham gave hope of bipartisan alliance but bailed early. Efforts since have been mostly symbolic. Republicans blocked votes on small measures that they used to support, like the DREAM Act, which would protect undocumented college students.
SPIN: "Don't forget who is standing with you, and who is standing against you," Obama recently told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. But Republicans say reform efforts have failed due to a lack of commitment from Democrats.
THE REAL STORY: GOP obstruction and the terrible economic climate made immigration reform a difficult proposition. But Democrats weren't exactly itching to get it done, either, fearing an exodus of working-class whites from the party.
WHAT'S POSSIBLE? The DREAM Act, powered by a strong grassroots movement, is the most likely accomplishment in the short term. Comprehensive reform is dead for now.
LAST WORD: "One thing I would like to have seen would be a stronger use of the presidential bully pulpit to get immigration reform the attention it needs," says Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona.
INVEST IN EDUCATION AND SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT
WHOSE GOAL? Progressives are split between those who support "teacher accountability" through testing and charter schools, and those who see solutions in more funding and social supports.
PROGRESS SO FAR: The stimulus bill included a little-noticed $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" competition for state innovation. But the big opportunity -- reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act -- has gone nowhere.
SPIN: Race to the Top chose a side in the debate -- boosting states with charter schools and merit pay. But, for a change, there's more carrot than stick; the government will reward schools that improve instead of punishing weak ones by withdrawing federal funding.
THE REAL STORY: Education Secretary Arne Duncan describes Race to the Top as an opportunity to spur reform from the local level as opposed to past "top down" approaches. Still, it only goes to 11 states and the District of Columbia.
WHAT'S POSSIBLE? No Child Left Behind needs reauthorization. Will Republicans see it as an honorable Bush legacy or just another social program?
LAST WORD: "It is not clear yet whether Obama's agenda of more testing, more competition, more charters, more merit pay, more federal control will have clear support" in the new Congress, says Diane Ravitch, who served in the Department of Education under the first Bush.
SECURE REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS
WHOSE GOAL? Pro-choice voters, including Republican women and independents, are essential to Democratic victories, and Obama knows it. As a candidate, he promised to pass and sign the Freedom of Choice Act -- though no one thought he meant it.
PROGRESS SO FAR: While advocates had big hopes for health-reform legislation that protected reproductive rights, the bill kept the Hyde Amendment in place and added new restrictions. Meanwhile, states have passed new laws curtailing abortion rights.
SPIN: In April 2009 Obama said, "I believe that women should have the right to choose. But I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on."
THE REAL STORY: Obama reversed the global gag rule, which prevented federally funded organizations that operate overseas from talking about abortion. But abstinence-only programs continue, and the new Congress could try to reinstate the global gag rule.
WHAT'S POSSIBLE? The Department of Health and Human Services is determining now whether birth control should be free for patients under the new health-care legislation. It's a litmus test for the Obama administration's commitment to reproductive rights.
LAST WORD: "The new Republican congressional leadership wants to go backwards and defund Planned Parenthood, fundamentally eliminate access to abortion services, and reduce funding for family planning," says Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.
REPEAL POLICIES THAT DISCRIMINATE AGAINST GAY AMERICANS
WHOSE GOAL? Candidate Obama promised to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act as well as pass the Employment Non -- Discrimination Act. Progressives view repealing DADT as the first priority.
PROGRESS SO FAR: At press time, the repeal of DADT had failed to pass Congress. The DOJ has defended the policy in court, where it and DOMA have been found unconstitutional. In October, the ad-ministration reinstated the ban on gays serving openly after a judge halted its enforcement.
SPIN: The administration claims it has an obligation to defend federal laws in court, and it's up to Congress to repeal them. The result is that the president is supporting anti-gay policies by inaction.
THE REAL STORY: Having achieved little -- and passed the buck to Congress -- Obama can't really claim credit for pushing to end discrimination. Whatever his personal views may be, he's been unwilling to expend any political capital on this issue.
WHAT'S POSSIBLE? With a Republican Congress, the prospects for gay rights look dim. However, the recently completed Pentagon study showing that gays serving openly would not harm unit cohesion or readiness could take the wind out of Republican opposition.
LAST WORD: Lt. Dan Choi was unavailable for comment; at press time, he was in jail for chaining himself to the White House fence in protest of DADT. Again.
WHOSE GOAL? Obama once said, "We need a commander in chief who has never wavered on whether or not it is acceptable for America to torture, because it is never acceptable."
PROGRESS SO FAR: On his second day in office, Obama issued an executive order forcing all government employees to adhere to the standards in the Army field manual on interrogation.
SPIN: Republicans have mostly relied on outsiders and euphemisms to defend torture, implying that the White House "goes easy" on terrorists.
THE REAL STORY: The White House de-serves credit for ending torture by American agents. But the administra-tion's policy on rendition leaves open the possibility of detainees in U.S. custody being tortured abroad.
WHAT'S POSSIBLE? A law banning torture outright would be ideal. Failing that, a court ruling could confirm that the use of "enhanced interrogations" is illegal. Neither, however, is likely to happen.
LAST WORD: The executive order banning torture "moved our nation miles ahead on the road to restoring its fundamental values," wrote ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero on The Huffington Post.
REFORM LOBBYING, CAMPAIGN FINANCE, AND OPEN-RECORDS
WHOSE GOAL? With his history of support for campaign-finance reform, Obama was the candidate of the "good government" wing of the Democratic Party. Open government was the natural evolution of his Web-powered 2008 campaign.
PROGRESS SO FAR: On day one, Obama banned former officials from lobbying the administration, but numerous waivers have been issued. The House passed the DISCLOSE Act, intended to curtail corporate influence in elections. Recovery.gov and Data.gov have also put vast amounts of public info online.
SPIN: In the wake of Citizens United, Obama seemed energized by the opportunity to attack big election spending -- giving political intensity to an issue that had been on the back burner.
THE REAL STORY: Lobbying reform and transparency are small gestures. The real solution, public financing of campaigns, is dead for now, especially with key supporters like Sen. Russ Feingold and Rep. Mike Castle no longer in Congress.
WHAT'S POSSIBLE? The GOP majority puts lobbyists back in the driver's seat, while Citizens United and Republican advantage in corporate fundraising make reform a purely partisan issue.
LAST WORD: The 2010 election is "the how-to for 2012," Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, told The Washington Post. "It's how to use corporate money, how to use secret money, to buy elections. ... It's going to be no-holds-barred."
REPEAL POLICIES THAT VIOLATE CIVIL LIBERTIES
WHOSE GOAL? As a candidate, Obama promised "robust oversight" of national-security tools from the PATRIOT Act to the state-secrets doctrine.
PROGRESS SO FAR: Obama gave little support to oversight measures during the PATRIOT Act extension, and even pushed amendments that would prevent oversight. He has made copious use of the state-secrets doctrine to block judicial oversight.
SPIN: In his Inaugural Address, Obama said, "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."
THE REAL STORY: But he always seems to
err on the side of imagined security. The New York Times reported that the president has privately remarked, "The C.I.A. gets what it needs."
WHAT'S POSSIBLE? More oversight of PATRIOT Act and surveillance provisions and legislation restricting the use of the state-secrets doctrine to individual pieces of evidence are needed. These are longshots given the political dynamics in Congress.
LAST WORD: The Center for Constitutional Rights concludes that "President Obama has no intention of returning to the people the power that he inherited from George Bush."
Although significant progress has been made on some important issues, a number of ideas, despite the high hopes of progressives back in 2008, have been mostly forgotten. These nonstarters include:
The Employee Free Choice Act. Breaking down the barriers to forming a union when workers want one would reduce inequality and economic insecurity. Despite organized labor's willingness to compromise on "card check," however, the law never came close to a vote.
Closing Guantanamo. The administration's promise to close the military prison wasn't matched by a willingness to work through the complicated policy questions of what to do with detainees or to stand up to political backlash against holding civilian trials.
A real boost for the economy. The $787 billion stimulus package wasn't enough to really get the economy moving, but the administration kept congratulating itself on the progress rather than confronting the limits. Incomes stagnated and inequality sky-rocketed during the good years of the 2000s -- how do we prevent that from happening again? Is the administration willing to confront the inequities of political power that reinforce that outcome? Those are the challenges for the next two or six years.
A Horizontal Accordion! (Nested)
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