David Coates

Helping Obama Rediscover His Groove


Thus far 2011 has not been a good year for progressives. The daily sight of the White House seeking elusive accommodations with Tea Party-inspired Congressional Republicans has not been an edifying one. Prior to and during the debt ceiling crisis, all the drive, all the issue framing, all the assertiveness in the pursuit of solutions, seemed to come from just one side of the aisle. In the process the stature of the White House (and that of its occupant) visibly wilted. A President full of confidence prior to the mid-term elections seemed to have entirely lost his footing.

So it was a huge relief to see Barack Obama feisty in defense of his Jobs Bill when addressing a joint session of Congress on September 8. It was an even greater relief to see him throwing down the gauntlet to John Boehner when introducing his deficit package later; and there was more reassurance last weekend when the President campaigned vigorously in California in the manner of the old Obama. It was good to see him openly condemning those who booed a gay soldier from the floor of the Florida debate as “not reflective of who we are.” It was good to see him insisting that the Republican vision of government would “fundamentally cripple America in meeting the challenges of the 21st century;” and it was good to see him treating the 2012 election as “a contest of values.” The California Obama was more like the Obama for whom many of us campaigned so enthusiastically in 2008: so maybe, at long last and not a day too soon, the President is beginning to get back his progressive groove. Let us hope so.

If he is, the issue before us is how to make sure that the groove is maintained and indeed improved. It is not that the Obama message these last weeks has been perfect. It has not. His jobs package is too small,[1] his long-term deficit reduction program too sweeping,[2] and his reticence on the housing crisis too crushing to the hopes of so many.[3] But the campaigning tone is returning, and with it the possibility of calling Obama back from his dalliance with conservative Republicanism.

How exactly can we maintain this new progressive momentum in the rhetoric and practice of the White House?  This way, perhaps.

l. By reminding ourselves just our enormous the stakes are, this time round. If Barack Obama loses the White House to a Rick Perry, or to a Chris Christie, or even to a Mitt Romney obliged to balance his ticket with some right-wing crazy, we will enter a new dark age for American welfare, for the American poor, and for those Americans now without work or poised soon to seek it for the first time. The current crop of Republican candidates are currently engaged in an insane dance of uber-conservatism, each seeking to outdo the other in the economic and social vandalism they enthusiastically promise to debate-audiences who are visibly high on libertarianism and low on compassion. Their would-be leaders are all for shutting the Department of Education at the very moment that American school scores are slipping down every international performance table. They are all for eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency (because it bans dust, according to Herman Cain in the televised Florida debate – of course it bans dust: dust that gives so many Americans serious breathing difficulties). They repeatedly call for limits on unemployment insurance, as though unemployment was a voluntary choice in an economy in which currently there are four times more job-seekers than jobs: and they are adamant that federal spending should be cut immediately and cut ruthlessly, even though such august bodies as the IMF are currently warning that too rapid a deficit reduction might yet tip us into a double-dip recession. Put Republicans of this ilk in full control in Washington in 2012, and the prospects for a decent life for an entire generation of young Americans will entirely vanish.[4] 2012 will therefore be no ordinary election, and we cannot afford to approach it as though it was.

2, By not running a progressive candidate against Obama in any party primary, or entertaining any fantasies about a third party success. The stakes in the 2012 election  are simply too high for any indiscipline on the Left in the campaign which precedes it. Any kind of primary challenge to Obama can only give free and effective political ammunition to our opponents, who will magnify and disseminate every tiny difference between Obama and his challenger(s). Indeed an effective primary challenge – one pulling the President onto new radical ground – would be meat and drink to the conservative media: proof positive that Obama was (and is) a closet socialist, in thrall to extremists within Democratic ranks. No, divisions on the left in the run up to the 2012 elections will simply let in the right. This is no time for any progressive voter to go pious, and refuse to back Obama because his presidency has not lived up fully to all the hopes we placed in it. This is the time to play defense – solid, serious defense – against a conservative political formation that, were it to sweep both Houses of Congress and the White House in November 2012, would make the Bush-Cheney years look like a liberal walk in the park. This is the time to dig in and dig deep, defending liberal candidates and a liberal President. It is also time to urge that liberal President to do more to make that defense worthwhile. The question is how?

3. By making a visible and radical break from Republican framings of our contemporary needs and condition. The Obama White House needs to stop trying to bridge the unbridgeable. It needs to stop blaming Washington inertia on “Congress” as a whole.  It needs to declare its search for bipartisanship over: over not because of Democratic Party extremism but because of Tea Party intransigence. This is no time to meet Republicans half-way, by offering limited deregulation as an alternative to their full deregulation. This is no time to pretend that taxing the rich is only about the math. It is certainly no time to outflank fiscal conservatives on their right by offering even more federal spending cuts than they propose. It is time rather for Barack Obama to say to the American public that if they want effective (and sensible) government, the Tea Party pot needs to be totally emptied down the electoral drain. It is time for a return to the Obama stance of 2007-8: to an unapologetic presentation of the case for change, and for clear Presidential support for the election of progressive lawmakers willing to make the House of Representatives once more the engine of that change.

4. By matching fire with fire: meeting a conservative ideological crusade with a progressive crusade of equal (indeed of greater) weight. The 2012 election will not be an ordinary one because Tea Party Republicans are not treating it as an ordinary one. They are treating it as a moment of hegemonic change, one that will fundamentally reset the underlying social bargain in modern America for a generation. Fiscal and social conservatives in this country are currently on a crusade, and they know it.  Theirs is an ideologically informed mission against Barack Obama personally, and against everything that his administration is said to represent: what they see as big government, federal over-spending, the forced removal of people’s hard-earned money in taxation, and the destruction of America’s economic future through unwarranted interference in the workings of a free market. Progressives will not blunt that conservative crusade by pretending that it is not happening. They will blunt that crusade by meeting it on its own territory, and by revealing its many underlying flaws. They will blunt that crusade…

5. …by mounting a serious challenge to the central assertions of the conservative case. Which is why an ideologically-offensive progressive president needs to say at least the following things, and say them loudly, clearly and regularly:

(a) …that there is a positive role of government The President needs continually to put to rest the bizarre notion that private enterprise in the U.S. economy flourishes because of its distance from government, and because it is by its nature more efficient and effective than government can ever be. Both ends of that proposition are entirely false. If the financial tsunami of 2008 and the foreclosure morass of 2010 tell us anything, it is that big companies can be grotesquely inefficient and socially irresponsible unless curbed by strong regulatory frameworks. A progressive president needs to say over and over again that this recession was caused by lack by regulation, not by its overuse. He needs to insist that public spending and public policy have a crucial role to play in the creation of long-term economic prosperity, and be adamant that the right kind of spending and policy can only come from a progressive administration – namely his.

(b) …that governments do create jobs. And not just any old job: governments create jobs of value (from teachers to soldiers), and often create jobs faster than the private sector – particularly when, as now, confidence in consumer demand is low and private businesses are understandably reluctant to hire. Rick Perry might claim otherwise (he certainly did in the first Republican candidate debate), as occasionally does Rand Paul; but then they are no progressives, and Perry is not even a reliable source on job creation in his native Texas! Cutting public programs in the midst of a recession can only deepen that recession, effectively amounting to a class war on the weakest and poorest amongst us – cutting the flow of public resources to those who need them most. A progressive president must regularly defend the vital role of federal government in periods of crisis and the essential role of civilized public policy in times of calm. He must not let the Republicans get away with their regular assertion that markets work best when regulated least. That nonsense got us into this crisis, and it will not get us out.

c) …and that there is a progressive as well as a conservative narrative in American politics, one that stretches from Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation through FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s war on poverty to the unfinished social revolution of the twenty first century. There is more American history to be told than simply the endless Republican return to the temple of Ronald Reagan. A progressive president must challenge the mythology of the Reagan years, reminding modern-day America that it was in the Reagan years that a social settlement based on strong U.S. manufacturing performance and rising blue-collar wages was replaced by a new settlement based on growing income inequality, the outsourcing of American jobs, stagnant wages and the spread of a ultimately fragile debt-based prosperity. Doing that, a progressive president will then be equipped to call the country to a new social settlement – a genuine New Deal unlike any on offer from Republicans then or now – one based on greater equality in rewards, the honoring of work and family, a return to buying only what we can pay for, and the building of a stronger safety net for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Doing that, a progressive president will also be equipped to present that new settlement as quintessentially American – indeed as America at its very best.

We need that progressive narrative back in play – and we need it now – because, if it is not in play, the ghastly conservative narrative currently being pushed at every Republican presidential candidate debate will come to prevail by default. Barack Obama reportedly told his California audience that what we face next year “is a choice about the fundamental direction of our country.” He is right. The election in 2012 will be that important. It will be a true watershed moment when one fundamental view of America’s future prevails over another fundamental view, and leaves an indelible footprint on this country for years to come. Such moments have to be seized. Conservatives know this. That is why they are so fired up and financed.  We need to be fired up and financed too – fired up behind a president who regularly says to the wider American electorate the kinds of things he has at last begun to say to the party faithful.

We can no longer afford there to be two Obamas – the radical fundraiser one day, the Washington fixer the next. If Washington is ever to be properly fixed, the funds raised must be spent on electoral victory; and that victory will only come if the President establishes in the minds of an entire electorate clear blue water between the America that will be created by Democrats in power and the America that would be created by Republicans.  The time for fudging the difference between liberal and conservative governing philosophies is well and truly past. The campaigning Obama seems to realize that. Let us hope that realization keeps him firmly in a progressive groove.

[1] See Robert Reich, Two Cheers and One Jeer for the American Jobs Act, posted on The Huffington Post September 9, 2011, and available at: http://www.nationofchange.org/two-cheers-and-one-jeer-american-jobs-act-1315582158


[2] Jeffrey Sachs, Grim realities in the Obama Budget Plan, posted on The Huffington Post September21, 2011, and available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-sachs/grim-realities-in-the-oba_b_973487.html


[4] For a list of probable casualties of Republican power, see Ian Millhiser, What If the Tea Party Wins? Center for American Progress, September 16, 2011: available at http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/09/tea_party_constitution.html


This argument is developed more fully in Making the Progressive Case: Towards a Stronger U.S. Economy

(New York, Continuum Books, 2011)

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David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

5 Responses to “Helping Obama Rediscover His Groove”

  1. John Siegmund says:

    Dear David,

    I agree with every point you make, but would like to ask a question or two.

    It seems essential that the President lead the progressive campaign. Do you agree? Surely he will need support from capable lieutenants. Who might they be? Members of Congress? Governors? Which ones do you see as best able to cqrry out that role?

    Thank you, JS

  2. David Coates says:

    i do agree. The critical task this time round is to win back the House, which means focusing all our campaigning efforts on key House races. Obama was elected in 2008 with too many blue-dog Democrats to give him an effective governing coalition. Defeating Tea Party Republicans by electing genuine liberals to Congress – wouldn’t that be something!

  3. Mike Fisher says:

    David, if the Democratic Party had not become an even more aggressive promoter of corporate interests over the past 30 years than it has always been, I may agree with you. But to advocate that the left rally around a centre-right President and party on terms entirely dictated by them seems to me to mark yet another step in the subordination of left politics to corporate electoralism. What remains of the left needs to assert the necessity of a progressive politics that is independent of the Democrats. Not easy. But such a politics will never emerge if the left continues to endorse the ‘lesser evilism’ arguments that have dogged and hindered left politics in the US for decades.

  4. David Coates says:

    Mike, I do understand this. It is the classic dilemma. In an earlier life, I spent years “voting Labour without illusions” to keep the British Tories out. Maybe that still colors my judgment. But I think we split the left only when that split is unavoidable and when the immediate and medium consequences are livable with. I don’t think either condition applies now. Progressives have to recapture the House of Representatives in 2012. It is the driver of federal policy, as we now see – and how I think we see if we look back at the Pelosi period. Too many blue-dog Democrats then, of course, but still a mighty force for change. Now gone. We need the House back in Democratic hands. We won’t get it by running a candidate against Obama. And if we split, we run the risk of a full sweep by the nastiest Republicans in living memory. They might take both houses of Congress and the White House: shades of 200-2006. A better scenario: pushing Obama to the left, getting him re-elected (just) and running (Senator) Elizabeth Warren for President in 2016. This is a long battle. Giving executive power to the Tea Party Republicans now might take us a generation to correct. What do you think?

  5. Mike Fisher says:

    David, I think there is a problem of terminology in your argument. The ‘progressive’ label is too broad and imprecise. What we are talking about are a mix of highly diverse forces to the left of the Republicans which are dominated by a Democratic Party leadership that would like nothing more than to see those to their left extinguished from the political map. To suggest that these forces will all ‘benefit’ from a Democratic victory is, I think, wrong. On the ground, a victory will be used by Democrats to further marginalise and demobilise the Greens, the Nader supporters, and those left-wing activists within unions who are trying to democratise and radicalise their organisations. The argument that the ‘stakes are too high’ to risk a Republican victory has been knocking around for decades and has a hollow ring to it. The stakes were ‘too high’ in 68, 72, 76, 80….and so on. And who bore the burden of unity? The unions and the social movements. They were the ones compelled to lower their expectations, moderate their demands, and submit to the logics of electoral triangulation. Never the pro-corporate millionaires who really determine Democratic policy and strategy. And where has this got the left? The failure of the left to build and sustain independent self-organisations out of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s was driven by many factors: but the willingness of too many left leaders to submit themselves to the Democratic party was chief among them. I suspect the only ‘solution’ to the current dysfunction of the GOP is for them to win. I recall reading a quote from an old British Tory politician who when asked, shortly after World War One, what should be done to counter the perceived radicalism of the Labour Party said ‘give them government’.

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