A New Progressive Era?


Robert Borosage


Huffington Post


October 28, 2008





Today, in the New York Times, an Institute for America's Future op ad calls on us to "remember who we are," comparing the present crisis with that our parents and grandparents faced at dawn of the New Deal. To see the ad, go here.

If, as seems likely, Obama is elected and Democrats win greater majorities in both houses of Congress, will we witness a new era of bold progressive change - a 21st century Green New Deal? Certainly many of the elements are present:

Moment: Events force change. Roosevelt famously campaigned in 1932 on a balanced budget and resisted laying out a bold agenda. But the scope of the economic collapse required bold action. Similarly, Obama began his campaign intentionally vague about his "change" agenda. But the scope of the financial collapse, the deepening global economy downturn have already forced what was unimaginable only months ago.

Mandate: Hoover's failure and the speculative excesses and crimes exposed in the stock market crash discredited the Gilded Age policies of that conservative era, giving FDR a mandate for a very different direction. Similarly, Bush's catastrophic failures have discredited modern day conservatism. John McCain has helped define the scope of Obama's mandate, with his closing argument that the election poses a choice between Reaganism -- smaller government and lower taxes --and "socialism." At this point, socialism is winning. Obama is far from a socialist, but he too has framed his closing argument as a choice of a new direction or the "failed philosophy" of trickle down economics, that scorns government, lowers taxes on the rich and increases insecurity for the many. He will be elected with a clear mandate for a change in direction, not simply a change in parties.

Majority: Roosevelt's overwhelming victory cowed what remained of his Republican opposition. Indeed, he had greater trouble corraling the various factions of the Democratic Party, particularly its entrenched Southern wing. Next Tuesday is likely to expose the Republicans as a minority, regional, aging, whites only party in the grip of its evangelical extreme. For Obama, the greatest obstacles to pursuing progressive reform are likely to come from his party's conservative Blue Dogs and Wall Street DLC New Democrats.

Moral Armament: Roosevelt, by the time of his first inaugural address, was portraying the challenge to the country in moral terms. He warned against "fear itself," called people to service and to unity. He demanded "safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order," particularly that of "speculating with other people's money." He skewered the "unscrupulous money changers" who had failed because

.. "their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish."

In his "closing" for the election, Obama is already issuing a similar moral indictment. He too is calling Americans to come together, to trust one another.

In one week, you can turn the page on policies that have put the greed and irresponsibility of Wall Street before the hard work and sacrifice of folks on Main Street....

I know these are difficult times for America. But I also know that we have faced difficult times before. The American story has never been about things coming easy - it's been about rising to the moment when the moment was hard. It's about seeing the highest mountaintop from the deepest of valleys. It's about rejecting fear and division for unity of purpose. That's how we've overcome war and depression. That's how we've won great struggles for civil rights and women's rights and worker's rights. And that's how we'll emerge from this crisis stronger and more prosperous than we were before - as one nation; as one people.

Does all this add up to a new era of bold reform? Two more elements are vital.

Presidential Determination: Roosevelt was known neither as a radical nor a particularly bold leader. Yet, as he came to understand the depths of the challenge facing the country, he clearly decided that "constant and persistent experimentation" were necessary, and that bold and dramatic measures were vital: the RFC to shackle the banks, the SEC to police markets, the WPA to put people to work, Social Security to provide basic security for all, the Wagner Act to empower workers and more.

Obama will face the same choice in the worst economic crisis since that Great Depression. Yet, today's conditions are far less dire. Many voices will counsel caution. Many will tell him to limit his priorities. Many will warn of unsustainable debts and deficits. What he decides is needed will be telling.

Progressive Movement. Roosevelt was blessed - although he often thought it a curse - with a mobilized progressive movement, led by militant labor unions. They pushed hard for reform, challenging Roosevelt's agenda, criticizing his timidity, demanding more. But they were also responsible, working to help him win reforms, challenging those who stood the way, understanding that they had to keep building power to gain further progress. Roosevelt was smart enough to help them: "the president wants you to join a labor union," their organizers said. They were disciplined enough to help the president, even as they pushed for more.

The current progressive movement is neither as organized nor as grounded. Some good many are pure Obama fans. Some - including much of the best of the bloggers - grew up in opposition to the war in Iraq and the crimes and catastrophes of the Bush administration. They are scornful of compromised Democrats, suspicious of a leadership that didn't end the war, cynical about the many corruptions of modern day politicians. Most of the organized progressive movement has spent the last years fighting to stop bad things from happening. Will a progressive movement come toigether that is independent enough to push Obama hard to go father than he might otherwise go, and responsible enough to help support reforms, and go after those in both parties that stand in the way? The Obama White House will clearly prefer the remarkable base that they have built during the campaign, ready to be mobilized in his support. Will they come to appreciate the benefits of an independent progressive movement demanding more than they think is possible?

Inheriting a country mired in two wars, headed into a deep and long recession, marked by Gilded Age inequality and growing insecurity, the next president will face stark challenges. If Obama is elected, he will have the moment, mandate, momentum, and moral armament to launch a new era of bold progressive reform. And in the coming months, if all goes well on Tuesday, we will learn if he has the audacity of hope to undertake it, and whether progressives can forge a force for change to propel it.