November 6, 2008 was a magical moment in the history of this nation. It was the day Barack Hussein Obama was elected the first African American President of the United States of America. Many Black people of my generation never believed we would witness such an event in our lifetime. But there he was, strolling out onto an elaborate stage at Grant Park in Chicago with his wife Michelle and their two lovely daughters, Sasha and Malia, to an adorning multitude of hundreds of thousands and untold millions across the nation and the world. Having campaigned relentlessly on the theme “Change We Can Believe In,” the air was filled with euphoria and great expectations.
One year later it appears that euphoria has collided with the systemic resistance to far-ranging “change” in Washington. By its very nature the American system of separation of powers and layers of checks and balances does not lend itself to bold, rapid change. Small, incremental change over time is generally the order of the day. Further complicating the task of producing change, President Obama inherited the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the worst economic crisis since the great depression -- a hand dealt to him by the free market ideologues from the Bush-Cheney White House and the barracudas on Wall Street.
But, moments of grave crisis can also present opportunities for dramatic change. This was certainly the case when Franklin Delano Roosevelt eventually pushed through the New Deal during the Great Depression. Among progressives, there was the hope that the gravity of the crisis inherited by President Obama might be a “teachable moment” when bold leadership might bring about the kind of overhaul of the political-economy that would constitute “change” we could believe in. However, this would require the gifted young orator from Illinois to galvanize the legions inspirited by his campaign to become an irresistible movement and force for change. It was not only FDR’s vision that made the New Deal possible, but also a massive, multifaceted, and progressive movement that embraced his ideas. That offered an even more radical agenda and pushed him further than he may have wanted to go in terms of policy change.
One year later there are signs that the “thrill is gone” in terms of the promise of the Obama presidency. It is not just that Republican governors were elected last week in New Jersey and Virginia (this has been the pattern in off year elections for decades); there was a major shift of independent voters away from the Democrats. Even more troubling, young people and Black voters simply failed to turn out in anywhere near the numbers that propelled Obama into the White House. This was the trend in several state and local elections across the country.
What is the source of the President’s difficulties? It has become increasingly clear that despite the gravity of the economic crisis, the Grand Obstructionist Party (GOP) is hell bent on destroying the Obama presidency at all cost. Egged on by rabid rightwing media personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, they have erected a wall of resistance to his policy proposals in hopes of attaining a “Waterloo” type victory for the radical right.
The concern of many within the progressive movement is that faced with these realities, the President has yet to muster the resolve to articulate and aggressively present the case to the American people for a bold agenda for change. He may yet find his way, but to date, President Obama has shown a tendency to be timid, pragmatic and to compromise with the obstructionists in a futile effort at “bi-partisanship.” As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman repeatedly reminded us, the original stimulus package to rescue the economy was not bold or large enough to produce meaningful results, particularly as it relates to generating jobs. President Obama sought to appease the obstructionists by offering a smaller package and padding it with tax cuts; a provision that most economists agree does not stimulate the economy. The outcome was predictable. The obstructionists demanded an even smaller package. The Democrats accommodated them and still only got three Republicans in the Senate to vote for the package.
There has also been a decided tilt toward Wall Street in the bank and mortgage bailouts. They provide great incentives for the bandits who precipitated the crisis but leaves taxpayers at risk if ailing institutions fail to recover. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of homeowners have succumbed to foreclosure or cling to homes that are “under water.” Labor was made the scapegoat for the lapses in innovation and leadership of management and bore the brunt of the auto bailout. Last, but not least, despite a conviction that single payer option is the most effective and efficient means of reforming the health care system, President Obama failed to advance this concept as a means of educating and mobilizing the American electorate. Instead, he lampooned the idea of Single Payer and offered the “public option” as a weak alternative. Because he compromised first instead of leading first, it is highly likely that even the public option will be sacrificed in the interest of getting “health insurance reform” passed.
Nine months into his presidency, at a time when a movement is needed to fight for “change we can believe in,” a significant segment of the voters who were mobilized by the Obama campaign have been demoralized and demobilized by his lack of bold and visionary leadership. The obstructionists are having a field day in the face of the timidity, pragmatism and propensity for premature compromise by President Obama. Now the President faces the critical challenge of gaining passage of health insurance reform legislation, with or without the public option, to establish a modest beachhead from which to re-launch his presidency. With the 2010 elections in the offing, it’s still not too late to recalibrate his approach to galvanize the movement that is essential to foster meaningful change. To do that, however, the eloquent orator from Illinois must stand up and provide visionary, bold and decisive leadership. Otherwise, the opportunity for far-ranging change may be lost for another generation.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.