Wednesday, January 20, 2010

To Pres. Obama & the Democrats: "Have you the will to reach the far horizon where rest the hopes of men?"

After his victory Tuesday night, Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts summed up the nightmare scenario for Democrats in 2010: “What happened here tonight can happen all over America.”

This loss of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat to a Republican for the first time since the 1950s does more to underline the fundamental consequence of Democrat’s sleepwalking approach through 2009 than any additional words can offer. And the message of this loss should now be loud and clear for Democrats across the country—especially for those in the Obama administration: Either wake up to the need for a fundamental transformation of strategy into one that is more clearly and assertively progressive and populist, and willing to fight! Or get ready to become a lame-duck party on the way to a one-term Obama Presidency.

At the inauguration of President Roosevelt in the midst of the Great Depression in 1933, the poet Robert Sherwood posed a fundamental question to Roosevelt on behalf of the American people:

“Are we sure that you have fixed your eyes on
A goal beyond the politician’s ken?
Have you the will to reach the far horizon
Where rest the hopes of men?”

At this crucial historical juncture for the Obama administration and the country, the American people need to pose this query to President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress.

Have you the will to reach the far horizon where rest the hopes of men?

During the four long months between the election of 1932 and Roosevelt’s inauguration in March of 1933, President Hoover did everything he could to try to tempt Roosevelt into abandoning his ambitions for the New Deal. As Arthur Schlesinger observed about this moment in The Crisis of the Old Order: “In the name of ‘cooperation,’ Hoover proposed that Roosevelt repudiate” most of the major policies that would make up the New Deal.

Roosevelt, however, made clear that he was not interested in this kind of “cooperation.” Instead, on the basis of a firm repudiation of Republican appeals, on the day of his Inauguration Roosevelt launched the greatest hundred days of institutional reform legislation this country had ever seen, and thereby laid the foundation for the programs of the New Deal.

President Obama’s first year, on the other hand, raises serious questions about how much of the potential for significant reform and the hopes he inspired for a second New Deal may have been surrendered in the months before his Inauguration by two parallel sets of compromises: (1) his decision to recruit for his economic/financial team representatives of the very financial elite that had set us up for the 2008 financial crisis and recession; and (2) his commitment to going out of his way to seek “cooperation” with a Republican party that had no interest in any constructive cooperation with the Democratic leadership.

Instead of accepting this political reality and beginning day one of his administration with a clear plan to fight and reverse the damage done by the Republican party’s disastrous framework of policies over eight years of misrule under the Bush administration, the Obama team seemed to have no clear plan for its first months beyond a moderate course of economic stimulus to correct the most severe aspects of the financial debacle, a commitment to health reform—without any clear will to fight for a public plan, and a rather bizarre commitment to seeking bipartisan cooperation with a Party that had brought the country to the brink of ruin, and was showing no desire to change its ways.

In a situation where the Democrats had won the most resounding political victory of a generation, and a clear progressive mandate for reversing the horrendous damage done by eight years of Republican misrule, the Obama team seemed more interested in establishing a tone of reconciliation than a fighting spirit aimed at building on the tremendous popular achievement of the Obama candidacy of 2008.

And because the Obama team so quickly and naively surrendered the tremendous power and potential of the political victory it had achieved, along with the opportunity for dramatic change offered it by the disastrous economic collapse that was the appropriate culmination of the Bush era, his team soon found, to its apparent surprise, that the popular anger and energy it had chosen to spurn and dissipate was instead being harnessed by the Republicans—against the middle-of-the-road Obama agenda.

Many inspired by the Obama candidacy had hope his election would bring about a movement for the restoration of a democratic government of, by, and for the people instead of the corporations and banks. But we were all quickly confronted with the reality of a President who had placed into leadership many of the financial whizzes responsible for the financial meltdown, and who appeared to be more interested in conciliating and appealing to the good graces of a Republican party committed to his failure, than to fighting for a progressive populist agenda that included a strong public health plan.

Instead of launching his Presidency with a strong critique of the last eight years of Republican misrule and errors of domestic and foreign policy, and building on the power of his victory to offer a strong and clear alternative agenda of policies that would reestablish the fundamental principles of a government that would fight for and with the people, against the corporations, banks and financial interests that had brought so much harm to the American economy and the millions of people who have lost their jobs; instead of using the historic victory of 2008 to establish a clear progressive agenda for a second New Deal, the Obama team’s somnambulant agenda of 2009 allowed most of the energy and hope of 2008 to be dissipated.

Instead of harnessing the transformative passion he inspired in the American people to fight for the restoration of a progressive agenda for government in 2009, the administration allowed these energies to decay into a free floating anger and anxiety that could be harnessed by others for anti-progressive purposes.

While obviously not intended, the consequences of this somnambulant Democratic politics in 2009 are already beginning to manifest—in the victory of Scott Brown. Democratic sleepwalking has allowed the populists on the right to step into the gap and scoop up the vast energies and anger in the country against the deep economic and political inequalities evident to all, in ways that have set the stage for these libertarian-right populists to become the insurgent force for the election year of 2010!

Only a sleepwalking Democratic Party could have squandered, in one year, the great opportunity offered for progressive populist renewal by the Obama victory of 2008. Enough said.

Now the only question remains: Will the Obama administration and the Democratic Party awaken from its sleepwalking?!

If the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress do not quickly wake up and develop a progressive policy spine for battle, they will be paving their way to lame-duck status, and will be forced to limp through 2011 and 2012 on the way to the end of a one-term Obama presidency—a presidency that will be viewed by history as more like the Hoover than the Roosevelt administration.

But this sorrowful history has not yet been written, and we are not condemned to this historical trajectory. Everything now depends on how the Obama administration and Democratic leadership responds to the dramatic loss in Massachusetts. Will the Democrats in Congress become even more cowardly, and lay down to die, as some in Congress already seem to be indicating they are willing to do? Or will the Obama administration and the rest of the Democratic leadership see the writing on the wall, and transform themselves into a Party of progressive Leaders willing to fight for the people who elected Obama to lead us in a new direction?

President Obama, in the words of the poet, the American people now ask:

[Can we trust] that you have fixed your eyes on
A goal beyond the politician’s ken?
Have you the will to reach the far horizon
Where rest the hopes of men?

Our hope has not yet completely died, but it withers a bit more every day…

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