Remember when liberals believed and conservatives feared that Barack Obama might become another Franklin D. Roosevelt? On its cover, Time depicted the president-elect smiling from the driver’s seat of a 1930s roadster, cigarette holder pointing toward the welcoming sky. That dream—or nightmare, for Republicans—of Obama as both a great reformer and beloved statesman was quickly extinguished by the toxic mixture of a stagnant economy, unending GOP filibusters, the health care legislative muddle, and the president’s own failure to use his rhetorical skills to empathize with troubled citizens and inspire the nation.
But Obama has fallen short of FDR in another, equally consequential way: Unlike the jaunty chain-smoker who swept four straight elections, Obama appears to have no strategy for creating a long-term majority—either for his party or for the progressive causes he believes in. For all his talk about “winning the future” (and his undeniable intellectual gifts), Obama seems to think that solving immediate problems is the key to political victory.
In fairness, the economic collapse has provided a surfeit of crises that must be addressed, and quickly. But, from the Great Depression until the great stagflation of the 1970s, Democrats dominated national politics by balancing crisis management with the building of a multi-ethnic, cross-class coalition tied together both by such programs as Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, and Medicare, and by expressing a generous ideology and moral perspective Roosevelt in 1941 called “the Four Freedoms”—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
Much has changed in America since then. We fret more about obesity than hunger and fear a handful of terrorists rather than another world war. But the recipe for extended political success has proved quite durable: a compelling vision of what kinds of policies Americans need and a set of powerful institutions that can motivate and mobilize voters. To date, Obama has yet to use this recipe. And, if he doesn’t soon, progressivism in American will suffer the consequences.
OBAMA HAS MADE little attempt to challenge conventional political wisdom and stand firmly behind those policies and institutions most critical to American liberalism. While his studied pragmatism is preferable to the ideological rigidity of his predecessor, Obama neither tangibly defines “winning the future,” much less “hope and change,” nor rallies Americans to his opinions and his side. Obama clearly understands that Keynesian stimuli, strict regulation of the financial industry, and decent health care benefits are the only policies, here and abroad, that can stabilize a capitalist economy and boost the morale and life-chances of the populace. But, as long as he refrains from making a strong and repeated case for these and other progressive ideals, Grover Norquist and his pledge-happy disciples will keep filling the vacuum with a dogma Grover Cleveland would have shared.
Neither has the president who once spoke so eloquently about the role of social movements in U.S. history appreciated the need to nurture and support their weaker counterparts in the present. With the partial exception of gays and lesbians, none of the groups in today’s Democratic core has powerful institutions that can recruit volunteers and mobilize voters. Obama has avoided giving any serious aid to struggling labor unions, which, for all their woes, still represent almost 15 million workers of all races and play a critical role in such swing states as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Nevada. What’s more, the remarkable grassroots mobilization we witnessed during the 2008 election has shrunk into the tame and conventional campaign apparatus that is Organizing for America. Such a passive citizenry cannot sustain a vibrant progressive coalition—particularly in the long term.
Of course, the blame doesn’t fall entirely on Obama’s shoulders. The knowledge that ineptitude and venality are bipartisan sins has turned many Americans into hardened cynics about government actions of almost any kind. Indeed, when corporations, enabled by a Supreme Court majority, seem willing to spend whatever it takes to get their way in Congress and the states, it is difficult to stay sanguine about the potential for serious reform. Last year, when Senator Richard Durbin blurted out that bankers “frankly own” the most powerful legislative body in the world, he was pointing to one of the many formidable structural obstacles that progressives confront.
Furthermore, liberals, and the Democratic presidents they support, have been on the defensive for decades. Since the racial crisis of the 1960s and the debacle of the Vietnam War, they have been afraid to assert the justice of their beliefs and the value of their accomplishments. Although Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton temporarily managed to win back some white Southerners who had fled the party of civil rights, neither put forth a fresh notion of what the government should do or found ways to unite progressive activists, unionists, black and Latino voters, and sympathetic businesspeople behind a common program. While each had sound reasons to abandon the old liberalism, they offered nothing to replace it other than vague talk about “a government as good as its people” and a “Third Way.” As a result, conservatism has remained the default ideology of the political class.
Meanwhile, on the right, Republicans have consistently appreciated the value of long-term planning. In the 1970s, they mobilized the troika of movement conservatism—religious traditionalists, business-minded libertarians, and neocon cold warriors (who later morphed into cheerleaders for the war in Iraq)—to supply the ideas, money, and institutions to push a simple message about slashing government (except the military) and supporting “family values.” That formula has helped the GOP win a majority of white votes in every presidential election since Richard Nixon squashed George McGovern.
By the turn of the century, Karl Rove and George W. Bush realized the nation’s changing demography would soon jeopardize their party’s electoral edge. So they proposed immigration reform to appeal to Latinos, and No Child Left Behind and the faith-based initiative to woo African Americans. That program, notes historian Gary Gerstle, “possessed a coherence that liberal critics of the administration too often overlooked.” The multiple disasters of Bush’s second term made a hash of the administration’s dreams. But, if Republicans are able to use the electoral foundation that the last White House built and win even two-fifths of the non-white vote—which, admittedly, would require softening their views on immigration—they would still be likely to cement a majority for several decades to come.
DESPITE HIS DISAPPOINTING performance so far, Obama still has an opportunity to prevent this from happening. With nativists in command of the GOP, his base among the swelling number of Latino and Asian American voters is relatively strong, and he enjoys the unshakeable support of African Americans. Against a party still led by evangelical foes of homosexual rights, Democrats can also count on the growing ranks of culturally tolerant professionals who live in most metropolitan areas. What’s more, Republicans are not likely to nominate a candidate in 2012 who can appeal to young whites the way the affable Reagan did. As Ruy Teixiera and John Judis have been arguing for the past decade, the demographic potential for a Democratic majority is there.
Yet, if Obama wants to realize this potential, he will have to do more than just win re-election, which may be difficult enough. He will have to show confidence and execute a strategy that clarifies what is at stake in our politics. Toward the end of his own second presidential campaign, FDR asserted, “Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.” Obama should speak so forcefully today.
It is important to remember that, contrary to liberal legend, Roosevelt did not glide from triumph to triumph. In fact, during the 1930s, a majority of Americans often disagreed with a given New Deal policy and were troubled by the growth of federal power it represented. Still, they were hungry for protective and vigorous leadership and trusted FDR’s concern for their plight, which he expressed and acted upon, clearly and often. This trust helped anchor the Democrats’ majority for years to come. Obama might not be another FDR. But he can become a tougher, more farsighted politician; that would be a change worth believing in.
Michael Kazin is the author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, to be published in August. He teaches history at Georgetown University.