Can the President Surf the Progressive Wave?


With the U.S. clearly suffering from a prolonged socio-economic disease that threatens to become debilitating, Obama should be taking advantage of the new progressive mood in the nation and the U.S. Senate rather than playing politics as usual. Can he keep up with a changing nation?

As Obama continues behaving as though his reelection had changed nothing, increasingly, that negative attitude may turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such an outcome, however, would constitute a wasted opportunity. In the context of the Recession of 2008 disaster and the clear guilt of the rich followed by four years of allowing them to evade responsibility, the continuing insistence by conservatives on maintaining all the privileges of that elite in the face of the increasingly evident socio-political sickness imperiling the U.S. has utterly discredited Obama’s strategy of compromising with the extreme conservative group that controls the Republican Party.

The renewed energy of Democratic progressives which offers the potential for transforming the Senate into a cutting-edge center of national reform makes Obama’s cautious, amoral efforts to compromise with a gang dedicated to the wholesale transfer of national wealth into the hands of the 0.1% while simultaneously pursuing the discredited neo-con strategy of a military resolution of U.S. disagreements with politically active Islam seem grotesquely misplaced and unnecessary.

The energy that the Progressives will devote to domestic reform is growing, with Warren’s calls for reforming the filibuster process and her redefinition of “balance” in fiscal policy being just the latest examples that the new Senate progressives mean business. Senator Tammy Baldwin has also noted the problems of the super-majority rule that the Republicans have in recent years been using to obstruct Democrats in the Senate. Meanwhile, Senator Sherrod Brown is advocating reforms to prevent corporate CEO’s from using corporate funds for their personal political preferences, a critical and imaginative reform in the new era of “corporate personhood” that allows a CEO essentially to defraud all the corporation’s employees of their political rights by transforming his personal corporate power into political power at the employees’ expense.

Whether or not the new Senate domestic progressives will understand the vital linkages between domestic financial reform and foreign policy is a critical question that remains unanswered, but one clue is  Baldwin’s record of opposing the invasion of Iraq and her advocacy of a faster withdrawal from Afghanistan. Baldwin’s ability to see the domestic policy-foreign policy linkage is also suggested by her statement, a clear criticism of the Bush Administration, that “our constitutional liberties shall not be sacrificed in our search for greater security, for that is what our enemies and all enemies of freedom and democracy hope to achieve.”

In contrast, Whitehouse does not even list foreign policy as among his six (!) key issues on his website; in an era of thinly veiled nuclear threats against Iran and a series of U.S. defeats in needless foreign wars, that is hard to label as anything but irresponsible for a U.S. Senator. Whitehouse, like some other incumbents, may become a good partner of the new progressives on carefully chosen issues (e.g., in Whitehouse’s case, environmental protection), but how smoothly the progressives will be able to integrate with the rest of Senate Democrats across the complicated board of necessary U.S. policy reforms remains very much an open question.

To make sure the answer to this question ends up being positive, Obama should be focusing on a very public effort to exploit his new progressive mandate by publicly teaming up with the just-elected “Warren reformist wing” of the party, leaving the Congressional Republicans to play catch-up. More, he should be making a broad case for reform: the issue goes far beyond the “fiscal cliff” to include a fundamental transformation of U.S. foreign policy away from its failing militarized stance, the bringing to justice of 0.1% financial criminals, and the re-orientation of U.S. tax policy toward the enrichment of the U.S. middle class. Key implementation steps to look for include sharply raising the capital gains tax rate back to its historic 30-40% levels, the bringing to trial of current and former CEOs and other top officers of major mortgage firms and investment banks who appear to have engaged in fraud during the run-up to the Recession of 2008, and moves to replace the neo-con military-first foreign policy strategy with a broad focus on engaging adversaries in the search for positive-sum outcomes: i.e., not more nice-sounding Cairo speeches but actual police steps to promote engagement looking forward to such reform goals as a deal with Iran that recognizes its right to emerge as a regional power, an Afghan regime including the Taliban, the end to rubber-stamp approval of Israeli right-wing militarist policies, and the articulation of a Mideast nuclear regime that would apply to all regional states.

Real progressive policy integrates domestic and foreign policy into a densely linked network of logically related and mutually supportive policies designed to allow all social sectors domestically and all states or independence-seeking societies internationally to achieve their aspirations. 

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