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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Toward a Sustainable State of the Union: What President Obama Needs to Communicate Tonight

"What happened here tonight can happen all over America." So stated the new Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown last week after his election night takeover of Ted Kennedy’s seat. If the somnambulant Democratic Party leadership wants to avoid the fate of having Scott Brown’s prediction come true, President Obama and the Democratic leadership need to engage a fundamental transformation of strategy.

That process of transformation could begin tomorrow night with President Obama’s State of the Union speech. To avoid repeating the mistakes of President Hoover, on the way to a one-term presidency, this State of the Union speech needs to do three primary things:

1. Emphasize an inspiring Vision of Sustainable Recovery and Governance for a democratic nation of, by, and for the people, not corporations.

2. Demonstrate President Obama is taking up the role of a democratic national leader, rather than trying to be a technocratic political manager of the narrow Beltway consensus.

3. Define an assertive Progressive populist Agenda for which the President will fight, as leader of the American people.

If President Obama and his administration are still inspired by the audacity of hope that helped them to win the election in 2008, here is the kind of message and vision that needs to be communicated in the President’s State of the Union Address tonight.

"Without vision, the people perish."

Vision--Develop an assertive Progressive Vision of government of, by, and for the People, not the corporations, by focusing on Sustainable National Recovery and Community Building.


Instead of constantly playing defense against an assertive populist minority on the right, emphasize your progressive vision of Democratic Governance for a Democratic Nation of People. Provide a larger inspiring vision for governing the country, one that engages the people of this country as participants in creating a Sustainable Recovery and an ongoing Process of Community Building assisted by a progressive government of, by, and for the people (rather than the corporations) that will put all Americans back to work in rebuilding their communities and the economy of the Nation!

Especially after last week’s Supreme Court decision, there is great opportunity and need to recapture the spirit and importance of the reasons our government over the last century was shaped to restrict corporate influence in order to preserve democracy from being destroyed by corporate power. Democracies are always fragile, and never more so in times of war and crisis. If we allow government to be taken over by the fear resulting from perpetual war and the power of money stemming from corporate control, meaningful democracy will have little chance of surviving in the U.S. during this century.

Since FDR’s New Deal was very fragmented and only partially effective, the Obama administration can provide a better and more Sustainable New Deal for the American people--if it grounds its strategy in a clear vision and a systematic strategy for addressing the requirements of economic and political transformation in the 21st century. A Sustainable New Deal focused on Recovery and Community Redevelopment can not only be more successful than Roosevelt’s New Deal, but can provide a vital platform for national and local transformation in this decade and beyond. Such a vision and strategy would allow the Democrats to lead the nation dramatically forward, rather than keep them in a position of continuing to fight on the margins of reform against a faux-populist Republican party that provides nothing but empty slogans and ideology to guide us further down the path to disaster.

Leadership--We Need Progressive Presidential Leadership, not Management, NOW!

We the People need a President who will not be afraid to take up the role of democratic political leadership of the people of the nation! We don’t need, and will eventually lose faith in a President Obama who rests content with trying to be another political manager of the Beltway politicians and their consensus (or lack thereof). We need a President who will provide the inspiring leadership of the People who elected Barack Obama to be their President. Allow your staff to play the role of managing the Beltway political process—that’s what they are hired to do. We elected you to do more than that. As President, you should be the political leader of the people of this country, and we need such a progressive leader now more than ever.

Tomorrow night, do not speak like a technocratic political manager! Instead, combine the impassioned and inspiring Obama of 2008, and of the 2004 Democratic convention, with the spirit of Presidents Lincoln and F.D. Roosevelt who came to understand and accept the role of being leaders of their country in times of national crisis. This means speaking beyond the audiences of the Beltway, to the hearts and minds of the American people. Use the vision of Sustainable Recovery and popular government for the people to take up the mantle of leader of the people of the United States, not simply of the other politicians within the Beltway.

President Obama, you have the ability to be an inspiring leader; don’t hide that ability under a bushel! This speech should rebuild our sense of the President as a popular leader of the country, not a mere political manager and technocrat of a Beltway-centric political process so narrowly and cynically defined that most of the American people have become disgusted with the very meaning of "government" associated with the Beltway. People have lost the ability to believe in government as a positive force for progressive change in their lives, their cities, and their country because no one speaks out in an inspiring way about all the valuable things government (beyond the Beltway) does and can do for the American people and for our common good as a people and a nation. The President as democratic leader should speak to this most fundamental of needs of a democratic nation.

Progressive Agenda--Define an Assertive Progressive populist Agenda you will fight for!

Grounded in a Vision of a Progressive Populist Government that will engage with and fight for the American people, and for a sustainable National Recovery and process of rebuilding communities, use this speech to define an Assertive Progressive populist Agenda you will fight for! Don’t get bogged down in a bunch of boring policy-wonkish details that make you sound like a politician and political manager rather than a leader of the nation. But use this speech to provide a clear and inspiring outline of the kind of systematic approach to progressive governing that will not only lead the country out of its current economic and political crisis, but also provide a strong and firm foundation for its future as it responds to the fundamental 21st-century challenges of war, climate change, and the crises of energy and economic transformation. These challenges are not going away, and will be a constant feature of this century’s historical development.

The President who can provide the people of this nation with a clear approach to achieving a Sustainable Economic Recovery and National and Community Development in the 21st Century will define the meaning of successful and positive government for generations to come (as did Roosevelt for the second half of the twentieth century).

This should be your trans-partisan (not bipartisan, which allows the combined limitations of both Washington parties to define your agenda) approach to developing an agenda for the American people, rather than the political parties. By focusing on outlining a progressive agenda for action on behalf of the American people that transcends the narrow limitations and petty politics of both parties, you can challenge the membership of both political parties, as well as Independents across the nation, to follow your popular progressive leadership. Absent this, you will remain hostage to the narrow and ultimately self-defeating agendas and battles of both political parties.

It is through defining a clear and inspiring progressive agenda for change, grounded in the vision of Sustainable Recovery and Community Building, that you can take leadership of the political process back from the reactionary forces governing both parties, and become a truly transformative democratic leader for the 21st century.

What would be some of the key highlights of a Progressive Agenda for Sustainable Recovery and Community Redevelopment?

First and foremost: A strong and primary emphasis on supporting and nurturing citizen and community engagement in processes of Governance and Policymaking, so citizens can take government back into their own hands for the purposes of sustainable development and community renewal. Effective participatory engagement in structures of local governance is crucial to the forms of sustainable community building and development needed to respond effectively to all the major challenges of the 21st century related to energy, climate change, and economic transformation. And the survival and flourishing of democratic government in this century depends on the rediscovery of popular and equitable participation in structures of governance that are not limited to the voting booth.

Second, the strengthening of effective and efficient social programs of education, health and human services, housing, food security, employment, and transportation under the more coherent and unifying umbrella of building sustainable infrastructure for healthy communities, is crucial to being able to defend and improve upon the national, state, and local infrastructure and structures of social services that people depend on for maintaining humane and decent communities that serve the fundamental needs and interests of the American people. Merely maintaining a focus on social program spending, and on restraint of such spending, in the absence of a new and inspiring vision and framework that gives people an understanding of what all social programs are for, is a losing strategy that feeds into the hands of all the reactionary forces that seek continually to cut social spending but have no problem with always increasing the budgets for military spending. This is neither a progressive nor sustainable strategy for the development of a democratic government and nation in this century. It is rather a capitulation of the worst kind to the reactionary forces that will defeat all movement toward a sustainable future.

An inappropriate emphasis on spending restraint in relation to the most pressing social needs of the people in the midst of a major jobs recession will do more to turn people against this administration than anything else could, while also ensuring that the economic recovery will fail to sustain itself. Any real economic recovery must be a jobs recovery, not merely a financial/stock market recovery.

Third, the promotion of progressive environmental and energy programs, on the order of New Deal’s TVA, are crucial to building a sustainable recovery. Here is where the most dramatic emphasis can be placed on clear programs for tying together sustainable economic recovery and community redevelopment through an emphasis on the promotion of fundamental and energetic initiatives needed to bring about the transformation of our national economy and energy grid to sustain a productive national economy throughout the century, while also protecting the global environmental commons on which all nations depend for their survival and flourishing in this century.

And last, the strengthening of effective and efficient regulatory programs to protect the interests and security of the nation’s economic and financial systems, along with the fundamental structures of democratic governance of, by and for the people, all of which can be so easily corrupted and broken down by forces from within or without.

NO MIDDLE ROAD to a Sustainable Future

The possibility of a compromising bipartisan middle road to the future disappeared during the eight disastrous years of the Bush administration.

Until the Obama administration and the Democratic Party wake up to this fact, they will be playing into the hands of the most reactionary forces of our political reality, and living in a dream world of the past. In the terribly fragmented and divided political culture of our present reality, there can be no middle road to winning the hearts and minds of the American people.

If Obama the President tries to play the role of political manager of a nonexistent middle-of-the-road consensus, and continues to follow the path of moderation and compromise, he will remain a mediocre president like Hoover who failed to rise to the occasion of democratic leadership and vision in a moment of national and global crisis. He will remain a President always reacting to the crises of each moment, rather than a President able to define and lead a democratic people and nation in turning crises into opportunities to redefine the nature of our structures of life and governance in ways that will help us not only to survive but to thrive as a people and nation in the 21st century.

In a time of crisis, to remain the same and follow the patterns of the past is inevitably to lose the struggle to define history. To remain a moderate in this crisis will mean being defined, limited, and eventually overwhelmed by the constant crises of our historical era.

President Herbert Hoover was defined by historical crises he was never able to rise above and command with a vision for national transformation and leadership. The first year of the Obama Presidency unfortunately followed the model of a Hoover rather than an FDR. But as we’ve seen from past presidencies, the first year does not need to define the course of an entire Presidency.

Obama was much younger than FDR when he took office, and so we can allow him the grace of time needed to discover and learn the necessity of assuming the mantle of national leadership in a time of crisis. This cannot be easy. It is obviously the most difficult of things, and no human being could do it alone. But President Obama has the hopes and aspirations and desire of the American people behind him, if he will have the courage to lead. Even FDR made many mistakes, and his New Deal was far from perfect. But FDR became a great leader because he was willing to lead, and take on the vast program of experimentation with passion and commitment to the common good of the American people and nation.

But the time for indecision within the Obama administration is quickly running out. The time for transformation of Obama the political manager into Obama the progressive democratic national leader has arrived, and tomorrow’s State of the Union is a pivotal opportunity for him to begin to make that transformation manifest.

Instead of accepting current 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 just brought the country to the brink of ruin, and has continued to show it has no desire to change its ways.

In a situation where the Democrats 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 in 2009 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.

Now, after the loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat and a Supreme Court decision that threatens to convert what remains of people’s democracy in this country into a façade for a corporate-controlled state, it is time for President Obama to assume the mantle of transformative democratic leadership the people of this nation are waiting for.

The people of the country want such a leader, and are ready themselves to assume the mantle of progressive leadership with him, to create the change that is needed. But in order to become a nation of transformative leaders, we need a herald to shine a light on our path, and to believe in the ability of the nation’s people to bring about this change.

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!

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 tragic 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, and what it signifies. Will the administration and 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 this nation in a new direction?

Unless the somnambulant Democrats and the Obama administration quickly wake up, and fundamentally transform their strategy into a clear and assertively progressive populist agenda, the Democrats should begin preparing themselves to become a lame-duck party on the way to a one-term Obama Presidency.

And so we must now pose to the Obama presidency, after its first year, the kind of challenge that the poet Robert Sherwood posed to F.D. Roosevelt at his 1933 inauguration:

[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 [the people]?

We hope, President Obama, that you will show us where you stand tonight--with Vision, Leadership, and a clear progressive Agenda.

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