The Art of the Possible: Obama and the Progressives

Richard Phillips

Standing on the National Mall in the midst of President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony, it’s no wonder the crowd’s excitement was visible. Having come into political consciousness entirely under the Bush administration, college-age progressives felt like things were finally improving after eight long and disastrous years.

The election of Barack Obama represented not only the end of the Bush era, but the beginning of a new era where progressive ideas would start to transform America into a stronger and more equitable country. After years of disaffection, progressives finally felt part of a real movement that was taking hold.

During the campaign, many of us could not help but put aside our deep cynicism about government that had been nurtured under the Bush administration. We took a leap of faith in believing Barack Obama when he said, “This is our time. This is our moment.”

More than one year later, the magic of the campaign has waned palpably. The realities of the first year of the Obama administration have made it clear that this is not the moment of grand progressive change. For many progressives, this disappointment has resulted in a return to deep cynicism and disaffection.

But this is not acceptable. Instead of dropping out of the fight, we need to figure out what went wrong and what we can do about it.


The rhetoric of the 2008 presidential campaign didn’t just promise the concepts of hope and change, but also a specific progressive agenda. As the Obama administration came together with the 111th Democratic Congressional Leadership, they laid out a grand legislative strategy.

The so-called ‘big bang’ legislative strategy consisted of three transformative pieces of legislation. The first was to be a major stimulus package providing a big enough boost to keep unemployment well under 10 percent. Following the stimulus package, Obama hoped to pass a major healthcare reform bill with a strong public option and a massive expansion of Medicaid — spearheading the transformation of the healthcare insurance industry. Finally, Obama promised to spur environmental change with a major climate change bill containing a substantial reduction in emissions by 2020, with the cost being taken on primarily by the polluters.

In addition to the ‘big bang,’ Obama and the Democratic Party pledged to reign in the excesses of corporate power that had driven the economy into deep recession. He promised to couple bailout efforts with a financial reform bill containing a tax to cover any current or future costs of financial bailouts, as well as a strong independent agency to monitor them. More importantly to progressives, the Obama administration said it would finally address the systematic income inequality caused by the rise in corporate power by passing a union reform bill (the Employee Free Choice Act), allowing the use of card check to certify unions rather than certification by secret ballot votes that involved wading through employer intimidation.

Among a wide range of ill-advised policies and programs left over from the Bush administration are Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Guantanamo Bay, and the looming wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. None of these should be bypassed or pushed aside for expedient political gains.

With the Democratic Party having a 78-seat advantage in the House of Representatives and a 19 (soon to be 20) seat advantage in the Senate, the scene was set for what was dubbed a legislative ‘big bang.’


And yet, a year later, the ‘big bang’ has fizzled out. No cap and trade. No card check. No financial reform. No end to the wars. No end to the bailouts.

The first to pass of two major pieces of the grand legislative agenda was the stimulus package, which proved to be too small to adequately jump start an economy in shambles or meet its modest goal of keeping unemployment under 10 percent.

The second major piece of legislation to pass was the healthcare reform bill. With the debate dragging on for a full year, the bill seemed to inspire a sense of exhaustion and relief rather than a sense of victory.

Certainly the bill is a major accomplishment; its regulation of health insurance plans and its massive expansion of health insurance to millions of Americans should be applauded. What does not deserve our applause, however, is the dropping of the public option, abortion restrictions, and the politically catastrophic handling of the reforms passage by Obama.

There were also some less significant legislative accomplishments, such as expansion of medical insurance for children, credit card industry reform, and changing the law to allow better enforcement against gender pay discrimination. Making matters worse, these small policy shifts feel overshadowed by the continuation of Bush-era policies.

For every troop Obama draws down from Iraq, progressives see another going to Afghanistan. Each dollar spent on the stimulus package seems less important in light of the billions still flowing to Wall Street bailouts and executive bonuses. Each positive policy change is significant, but these do not represent the transformation that we were promised and what our country needs.


Our expectations were too high. According to a Gallup poll, some 62 percent of Americans expected Obama to be an outstanding or above average president, with only 11 percent expecting him to be average or poor.

These expectations were never justified, especially for progressives. In taking a leap of faith with Obama, we glossed over the reality of his policy platform, of Republican opposition, and of the sheer size of the problems facing the nation.

For all of Obama’s rhetoric about transformation and change, the campaign platform on which he ran was always and purposefully centrist. Remember, for example, that one of the few fundamental differences between his platform and Hillary Clinton’s was that his proposed healthcare plan did not provide for universal healthcare, whereas her plan did.

Compounding this, there was an expectation that Obama would be met with at least some willingness by moderate Republicans to work together on major issues; instead, Obama is facing completely united and often unreasonable Republican opposition. This, combined with the vacillating level of commitment from many moderate Democrats, makes passing substantive legislation difficult, especially considering that the filibuster in the Senate is rearing its ugly head once again.

The problems with the filibuster are nothing new, but the willingness of Republicans to use this legislative procedure in a historically unprecedented way certainly is. As Ezra Klein of The Washington Post points out, the amount of legislation having to overcome a filibuster in 2007-2010 is equal to the amount during the entirety of the period from 1919 to 1984, and is triple the rate during most of the Bush administration.

Finally, we seem to have forgotten exactly how inconceivably large of a mess our country was left in by the Bush administration. On the domestic side, for example, the economy is still steeped in the worst recession since the Great Depression. For all the talk of turning the economic collapse into opportunity, the fact remains that our economy has lost some 8.4 million jobs which are not coming back anytime soon, no matter what the Obama administration chooses to do.

Moving beyond the immediate economic recession, the Obama administration faces Bush’s two wars, trillions of dollars in additional debts and deficits, and a country that has certainly lost its reputation in the world.

To expect that the Obama administration could, in a couple of years, completely clean up the mess that the Bush administration took eight long years to create is expecting the impossible.


We can’t take all the blame for setting high goals. Even facing tough opposition and high expectations, the Obama administration has failed to meet its own much lower and ‘achievable’ goals. Sure, progressive expectations were ambitious, but they were also founded in pragmatism.

The healthcare reform bill, for instance, was not some socialist single payer program — if only. In reality, it was a mish-mash of moderate policy changes that hewed the line of Republican reform proposals from the 1990s or Nixon’s healthcare proposals.

Frankly, the bill is hard for a lot of progressives to stomach. But we do so out of a no-nonsense belief that it is the best we could get for another generation.

After offering compromise after compromise, the Obama administration has still failed to adequately water down major initiatives to suit the Republican Party’s wishes. In the face of a solid and united Republican opposition, Obama has responded with dithering and even more compromises. For many progressives and conservatives alike, Obama’s first year is starting to feel a lot like the Clinton administration’s abandonment of progressive policies.

Still, considering the passage of the healthcare reform bill, there is some cause for hope. Obama could have let the issue of healthcare go last August when the opposition started to boil over. It would have probably been the politically smart thing to do.

Instead, he pressed on and finally found his footing as the progressive populist, standing strong with fellow Democrats by pursuing the hardnosed tactic of reconciliation.

Recently, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs reported that Obama was “quite comfortable” with only being a one term president if it meant getting important things done. To most observers this sounds like rhetoric — and maybe it is — but his final push for healthcare shows that there is some potential for great action within Obama’s presidency.


Did we expect too much of Obama? Is he not strong or liberal enough? Or is he a progressive champion fighting against tough opposition?

On all three accounts, we can say “yes.” But where does that leave us? It leaves us in a situation that is tough and in one that is bound to get tougher.

The healthcare reform debate provides a clear lesson for both Obama and progressives alike. When we both fight hard for progressive change and stand firm against shrill opposition, we are able to make substantive — although imperfect — accomplishments. Had we had given up on the bill because of Republican opposition or castigation from the left, the Obama administration would have been weakened. We would have given up a vital opportunity to improve national healthcare, and neglected to install programs that will affect millions in the coming decades.

We need to remember that this fight is too important to give up on. This fight is too important for nihilism and debilitating cynicism. Facing millions of uninsured Americans and gross income inequality, we must understand that this is a fight of necessity.

When progressives point out, for example, that even the current compromised healthcare proposal will likely save 45,000 lives a year, we aren’t kidding. We need to remember that these legislative victories and setbacks have tangible realities.

Returning to Inauguration Day, I remember when Obama called out the cynicism that once again, a year later, has become commonplace: “Now, there are some who … suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans … they have forgotten …what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”

A year later, President Obama has failed to deliver on the transformative change he promised. But that doesn’t mean we can allow him to stop fighting for it.