The term “circular firing squad” is often used to describe the antics within the Democratic Party, and now I know why. Witness a 17,000-word piece written this week for The Nation by Eric Alterman, my colleague at the Center for American Progress. Titled “Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Democracy is Impossible for Now,” the article makes two critical arguments about the Obama presidency. First, that Obama has been a disappointment because he has not accomplished the significant, overarching change on which he campaigned. And, second, that there are so many institutional hurdles—including corporate power, the filibuster, the media’s conservative tint—that, today, the deck is almost inexorably stacked against real progress of any kind. Both arguments belittle the substantive and far-reaching change that has already occurred under Obama.
I concede that, in the first 18 months of his presidency, Obama has not accomplished all that he campaigned on. But I would submit that, if the president only passed the health care bill and nothing more in this term, he would still have succeeded in bringing about significant change, because the bill represents the greatest and most progressive piece of domestic legislation in my lifetime. Alterman, however, dismisses that bill in its entirety as a horrible compromise on issues like the public option and abortion. Was compromise, some of it unattractive, necessary for the bill to pass? Yes. But that's how governing works; even Nancy Pelosi, as much a liberal warrior as any other politician alive today, understood that. No, the bill didn’t contain a public option—an issue that garnered minimal liberal agitation during the 2008 Democratic primaries—but it will cover 30 million or so Americans who don’t have insurance today. Twenty-five years from now, I believe that we will see this bill as we see Medicare today—we will find it unimaginable that people worried about going bankrupt when they got sick, just like we now find it unimaginable that seniors didn’t have health care 50 years ago.
Health care, however, is not the president’s singular achievement. He is on the cusp of passing the most sweeping financial regulatory reform since the Great Depression. It includes the strongest consumer protections in history, including an independent Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, a point of conflagration between the parties. Yet, because there is a carve-out for auto dealers, Alterman gives regulatory reform short shrift as another bad compromise. Why does he insist on such full dismissals that diminish serious and important progress?
This doesn't mean that all is well in Washington. The president has not passed the Employee Free Choice Act or cap-and-trade. And, as Alterman documents, there are clearly hurdles to progressive change, such as the structure of the Senate: The founders wanted change to come slowly, and they more than made sure of it. But the story of Obama’s first 18 months isn’t that real change is impossible. It is that, despite barriers, real change can and has come.
If the left can’t recognize it, the right certainly can: The Tea Party movement was born of frustration at Obama's successes. That the president has changed so much in so little time is what sends those folks into the streets. It is a statement on liberalism that some on the left, like Alterman, can also decide to look upon so much change as failure.
Neera Tanden is the chief operating officer of the Center for American Progress. She served in the Obama and Clinton administrations.