David Coates

A Progressive Second Term? (I) Prerequisites

            Amid the scampering up and down the fiscal cliff that now dominates political life in Washington, some more important and basic questions are in danger of vanishing from view, questions about the general character and progressive potential of Barack Obama’s second term. Questions such as these. Will this Administration in the end prove to have been worth fighting for? Will we by 2016 be able to say anything more than “well, at least we avoided a Romney presidency and a Republican clean sweep”? What can we do now to enhance the radical potential of a second Obama term? As we face a new Inaugural and a fresh State of the Union Address, what should progressives be pressing for, the better to differentiate the incoming Administration from the outgoing one?

The basic requirements are clear, even if the chances of their delivery are not. Four things in particular now need to be done if this second term is to be, in even a limited way, a genuinely transformative one.[1] A progressive policy agenda needs to be both clearly laid out and unambiguously pursued. The political and social forces underpinning that pursuit need to be systematically strengthened; and the whole public dialogue about the history, character and potential of America needs to be reframed in a distinctly center-left way. We need progressive policies from a redesigned Obama Administration. We need Administration support for the strengthening of progressive forces. We need a progressive narrative from the President himself; and we need all those things together.

Progressive Policies

We definitely need better and more progressive policies from Obama in the second term than we received from him in his first. We need rapid and effective immigration reform. We need a new “war on poverty.” We need a new and more ambitious “American Jobs Act.”  We need direct action to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. We need new protections for trade unions and new rights for working women. We need a trade policy that protects American jobs by strengthening labor rights both at home and abroad. We need new rules to curb the excessive role of money in politics. We need American troops home. We need legislation to reduce America’s carbon footprint. In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, we need immediate and strong gun law reform. We need…. a very large number of things.

Progressive Departments

Obama may be no FDR, but even FDR needed two terms in order to successfully implement a lasting set of New Deal initiatives. Obama now has that second chance; and that chance will not be realized without a significant change not only in policy but also in personnel; a veritable culling of the last of the centrist blockages, and a conscious re-ranking of cabinet departments. If this second Obama Administration is to be a genuinely progressive one, it will need stronger spending departments than in the first Obama Administration. It will also need a Treasury Secretary less wedded to Wall Street, and one more attuned to the potential of large-scale federal spending initiatives as triggers to economic growth. It could also benefit from an institutional change often hinted at by the President: the resetting of the Commerce Department as a proper Industry Department, one orchestrating excellence on the civilian side of the U.S. economy in the way the Pentagon does for the military-industrial side.[2] Education, Energy, Labor, Commerce, and Health and Human Services will all need to be cutting edge departments if this Administration is genuinely to improve America’s human capital, reduce America’s over-dependence on fossil fuels, raise the minimum wage and strengthen collective bargaining, deepen protective labor clauses in future trade agreements, and turn the promise of the Affordable Care Act into the new and permanent institutional architecture of a revamped American health care system.

Progressive Forces

None of that will be easy to implement, of course, because conservative Republicans still control the House of Representatives, and because the momentarily-shaken conservative media machine will soon be back once more in full play, disseminating its regular nonsense with its usual enthusiasm. Which is why, if the second Obama term is to be more progressive than the first, we will also need a deliberate strengthening of key progressive institutions and social forces, and a consciously adopted strategy to win back Democratic control of the House of Representatives in 2014. To strengthen progressive social forces, the second-term Obama White House will need to maintain its strong activist base, using it to advocate and agitate for progressive goals. And among those goals must be legislation to roll back the Republicans’ “right to work” crusade, and campaigns to legitimate the role and importance of public sector trade unionism.[3] No more bashing of teachers unions in Democratic Party explanations of how to achieve real educational reform. No more White House silence as low-paid workers, in stores as ubiquitous as Walmart, struggle for the right to organize.[4] Instead, the new White House will need to pitch strong progressive policies as the only viable solution to our current growth and unemployment impasse – pass those policies through the Senate and bring them before the House – the better to demonstrate, week upon week, that any gridlock in Washington DC remains the product of Republican intransigence, not of Democratic ineptitude.

Progressive Narratives

But that strategy will not work on the scale required unless Barack Obama in his second term also does one other fundamental thing. We need him to make a sharp and distinct break from the conservative narrative now dominant in Washington: the narrative that says that success in America is always the product of small government, low taxes and unregulated private enterprise. The Republicans may have lost the White House but they still command the framing of the American political mind. Basic Republican myths were inadequately challenged during the first Obama term: the myth that federal spending hurts rather than facilitates economic growth, the myth that only the private sector creates “real” jobs, the myth that excessive corporate taxation spurs outsourcing, the myth that welfare spending is too high. To this day, Ronald Reagan figures too highly and too regularly in the Washington beltway’s American pantheon.  FDR, by contrast, figures there too little and too rarely. All that needs to change. American greatness needs to be tied again to a politics of equality and fairness. It needs to be tied again to the pursuit of social justice and the erosion of economic privilege. It needs to be tied again to a twenty-first century version of FDR’s New Deal. Americans need to hear – and to hear over and over again – not the old hoary Reaganite nonsense that government is part of America’s problem, but the liberal and progressive counter-assertion that intelligent governance is a core part of America’s solution!

The Democrats will not win back the House of Representatives in 2014 unless new and sizeable chunks of the American electorate have by then already been persuaded of the need for progressive rather than conservative or libertarian solutions to our dominant economic and social ills. And they will not have been so persuaded unless the Obama White House uses its newly-acquired electoral legitimacy to argue strongly and regularly the case for regulated markets, the case for strategic public spending, the case for a green route to long-term economic competitiveness, the case for positive as well as negative freedom,[5] and the case for a return to a foreign policy of multilateral alliances and limited foreign military engagement. This President is a gifted speaker. He now needs to become a progressive and a hegemonic one; and the question that remains unanswered, as his second term begins is whether he is on board for that hegemonic task.



These arguments are more fully developed in David Coates, Pursuing the Progressive Case? Observing Obama in Real Time [6]


[1] For the argument that Barack Obama’s presidency had that potential, see Robert Kuttner, Obama’s Challenge. White River Junction VT, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008.


[2] See Leo Hindery, “State should take lead in commerce,” The Financial Times, December 11, 2012: available at http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/13440280-43a4-11e2-a48c-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2GdpLVhhk


[3] For a glimmer of awareness of this, see Barack Obama, Change We Can Believe In. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2008, pp. 39-40.


[4] On this, see Robert Reich, Organizing McDonalds and Walmart, and Why Austerity Economics Hurts Low-Wage Workers the Most, posted on Nation-of-Change, December 1, 2012: available at http://robertreich.org/post/36892075499


[5] On this, see David Coates, Making the Progressive Case, Towards a Stronger U.S. Economy. New York, Continuum Books, 2011, pp. 54-55; and http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberty-positive-negative/


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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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