David Coates

Time to Choose, America!

It is likely that 2012 will be long remembered as a watershed year in America politics. It certainly needs to be. Neither the country nor the world can afford much longer the gridlock that is presently immobilizing Washington. We all know that. Here we are, beset with a string of fundamental problems and bumping along the bottom of the most serious recession since the 1930s, frustratingly becalmed in a stalemate between political opposites, with the federal government unable to address the structural reforms that this economy and society so visibly requires. Currently, the width of the agreement on the seriousness of our problems is matched only by the depth of the disagreement on how best to resolve them. Given the depth of that disagreement, any effective resolution will inevitably take America off in one direction or in quite another, depending on which side of our entrenched political divide eventually prevails. When neither side does, as now, our problems simply intensify. We need therefore to go into 2012 clarifying the genuine choice of direction now before us as a nation, and we need to come out of 2012 with Congress and the White House in lockstep on the direction to take.

The Republican Party knows the package of structural reforms it would implement. It controls the House of Representatives. It wants to take back the Senate and the White House. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has a very different, and to my mind, significantly superior package of reforms in its arsenal. They need the House back, and clear leadership from the White House to get it.

But will that leadership come?

It won’t if Obama’s re-election people fall into the trap of thinking, as they appear prone to do, that all they need to possess, in order to win in 2012, is superior organization: nothing about superior politics. They mislead themselves, and possibly us as well, if they think that all they need to do between now and November is to run some supped-up version of their 2008 campaign: putting workers on the ground and adverts on the airwaves in greater volume than their opponents. It won’t be that simple this time round.  Last time, all was promise. Now promise will be measured against performance. Performance has been, to put it mildly, uneven. This time, the Obama people are not fighting the Bush legacy. This time, they are fighting their own legacy. Whatever November 2012 will be, it will not be a shoe-in for the incumbent.

How then can the Obama Administration recapture the hearts and minds of progressive America? How can it demonstrate the superiority of its politics? Not by the President being statesmanlike, standing above the political fray, as The New York Times reported he may still be planning to do on his return from Hawaii.[1] He has already struck that pose too often and too long. Among other things, it cost Democrats the mid-terms. No, the hearts and minds of progressive America will only be recaptured by a President who – in the style of his recent Osawatomie, Kansas speech – is regularly prepared throughout 2012 to:

  • put the blame for the current political impasse squarely where it belongs: not on Congress as a whole, but on the ideological intransigence of Tea Party Republicans, especially in the House;
  • defend the progressive gains of his first term: access to health care for 30+ million Americans previously denied it, the beginnings of reform of a financial system badly out of control, and the ending of an unnecessary war in Iraq;
  • remind Americans of the scale of the economic and military disaster left by the Bush Administration in 2008, and of the way Congressional Republicans have filibustered every progressive attempt to put the resulting recession behind us;
  • call on independent voters and Democrats to unite behind an administration committed to using its second term more effectively than its first to create a fairer America, a more prosperous America, and an America progressively free of foreign wars; and so
  • return from his Hawaiian Christmas prepared to launch a crusade for peace, jobs and equality.

Will Obama do that? Let us hope so. He certainly mustn’t return to Washington from his brief vacation simply offering business as usual. He must return with something new and dramatic. To save America from the horrors of a right-wing presidency, his administration has just ten months to remind Americans of just how many American households depend on at least one federal program for a key part of their income (maybe as high as one household in every two), and just how important active government is, on everything from food safety and environmental regulations to unemployment insurance and Pell grants.[2] Even more vital, the Administration has just ten months to re-establish Obama’s progressive credentials among independents and Democrats alike, by a burst of executive action and policy proposals designed to lock in key constituencies and to reinforce liberal Congressional candidates.

If the Administration fails to re-establish those credentials there is a genuine danger that, come next November, we will see power in Washington shift back to a Republican majority which will be even more reactionary in its domestic policy, and hawkish in its foreign policy, than were the Bush Republicans defeated by the untested Obama in 2008. If Barack Obama does not present himself in 2012 as a committed liberal, many progressives will simply decline to campaign for his re-election. Many might not even bother to vote for him. Some may even head off in search of a third party candidate, alienated to the point of indifference by the President’s failure to sustain his promised program of radical change.  The Obama Administration needs to recognize, and recognize as a matter of urgency now, that keeping Republicans out of the White House will require, at the very least, serious defensive politics by a broad coalition of the entire American Left throughout 2012. It needs to recognize too that mobilizing such a coalition for purely defensive purposes alone will be extraordinarily hard. Getting out the full progressive vote is invariably more straightforward when liberals can see, and actually like, what is on offer. It is invariably more difficult – much more difficult – when the only choice being canvassed is one between lack-luster alternatives, neither of which appeals, where the main reason for voting is to keep the other side out.

We need something to vote for, not simply something to vote against!

Which is why it would help the progressive cause enormously in 2012 if the Obama administration could start this election year with something akin to a new “100 days”: policies and programs well to the left of any that it has so far chosen to offer, designed to, at the very least:

  •  halt the flood of foreclosures by an aggressive write-down of the outstanding debt on underwater mortgages;[3]
  • increase the flow of low-cost credit to small and medium-size businesses in return for additions to their labor force;.
  • slow the outsourcing of American jobs, strengthening American manufacturing by bringing middle-class jobs back to middle-class America;[4]
  • bring employment directly to what otherwise might become a lost generation of Americans now in their 20s, through a public works program modeled on FDR’s New Deal[5] (this time perhaps, including trading the writing-off of student debt for work on urban redevelopment);
  •  tax speculative financial transactions and excessive bank bonuses, explicitly to fund the re-employment by cash-strapped states of the teachers, cops and firefighters now being laid off;
  • grant amnesty to the children of undocumented workers, and routes to citizenship for their parents;[6]
  • bring troops back from Afghanistan at an ever increasing rate – replacing nation building abroad by a new round of nation-building at home.

Is any or all of this just a pipe dream? Sadly, I fear it mainly is, but I still hope it is not. For in truth our options are narrowing rapidly. As a nation, we can spend 2013 returning under Republican leadership to the inequalities and unregulated financial excess that brought us to our present impasse in the years of George W. Bush, or we can spend 2013 beginning to realize a new progressive deal for a resurgent America. The entire future direction of America’s economy and society is at stake this time around. Being wishy-washy in the center will no longer cut it. Which is why now is exactly the right time for the Obama Administration to get off the fence and clarify the choice, and clarify it by the introduction of a slate of progressive policies – so that America can eventually choose, and hopefully choose wisely, next November.

[1] Mark Landler, “Obama to Turn Up Attacks on Congress in Campaign,” The New York Times, December 31, 2011: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/01/us/politics/obama-to-focus-on-congress-and-economy-in-2012-campaign.html?pagewanted=all


[2] Suzanne Mettler, ‘Our Hidden Government Benefits,” The New York Times, September 19, 2011: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/20/opinion/our-hidden-government-benefits.html


[3] William Greider, “Debt Jubilee, American Style,” The Nation, November 14, 2011: available at http://www.thenation.com/article/164216/its-time-debt-forgiveness-american-style


[4] Jane White, ‘How About a New Year’s Resolution to Stop Outsourcing the American Dream,” posted on The Huffington Post, January 2, 2011: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-white/how-about-a-new-years-res_b_803361.html


[5] See Andrew Fieldhouse and Rebecca Thiess, The Restore the American Dream for the 99% Act, Economic Policy Institute Issue Brief #320, December 13, 2011: available at http://www.epi.org/press/restore-american-dream-99-act-create-2-3/


[6] See David Coates & Peter Siavelis (editors), Getting Immigration Right: What Every American Needs to Know, Washington DC, Potomac Books, 2010: updated at https://www.davidcoates.net/answering-back/chapter-7/


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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.

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