A Transformational Presidency?

Four years ago we gathered at The Nation to watch the election returns. Around midnight we began to weep. But we had to put out an issue the next day. So, through the grim night and bleak day after, as the Election 2004 verdict became clear, we held our emotions in check and worked to make sense of the disaster that had befallen the country. The cover of our issue that week was of a black sky, dark clouds obscuring a slim and crestfallen moon, with a simple headline: "Four More Years."

Four years later, our offices are filled with editors, writers, interns, and colleagues -- some crying, this time with joy -- all jubilant about the new era of possibility opened up by Barack Obama's victory. We know there is work ahead to build a politics of sanity and justice and peace. But tonight we simply celebrate.

Obama's election marks a remarkable moment in our country's history -- a milestone in America's scarred racial landscape and a victory for the forces of decency, diversity and tolerance. As our editorial board member Roger Wilkins reminded us on the eve of the election, Obama's win "doesn't turn a switch that eradicates our whole national history and culture." But "win or lose, Obama has already made this a better country, made your children's future better."

This long and winding campaign has been marked by highs and lows, necessary and unnecessary divisions, indelible characters and high drama. For the first time in decades, electoral politics became a vehicle for raising expectations and spreading hope -- bringing in millions of new voters. The Obama team's respect for the core decency, dignity and intelligence of the American people was reflected in the campaign's organizing mantra -- "Respect-Empower-Include." In contrast, the McCain campaign chose to denigrate voters' intelligence, spread the smears and mock the dignity of work with its cynical celebration of a plumber who wasn't really a plumber.

Grassroots engagement and record-shattering turnout contributed mightily to Obama's decisive victory. Moving forward, this small-d democratic movement -- broad-based and energized -- will be critical in overcoming the timid incrementalists, the forces of money and establishment power, that are obstacles to meaningful change. And it will be needed to forge the fate and fortune of a bold progressive agenda.

Already we hear calls that the new Democratic majority must not "overreach." That is code for "do not use your mandate." Ignore those calls -- this election was a referendum on conservatism that has guided American politics since 1980. Indeed, future historians may well view Barack Obama's victory as the end of the age of Reagan and the beginning of something substantially new. And progressives can justifiably claim that the election outcome was a clear repudiation of conservative economic ideas and absurd claims that a more egalitarian approach to growth constitutes "socialism." This ideological rejection, the sharp failures of the Bush Administration and, perhaps most important, the shifts in public views on the economy and the war have led to this watershed moment -- a historic opportunity for a progressive governing agenda and a mandate for bold action.

The great challenge for The Nation and other independent and progressive forces is whether we can harness the energy and idealism unleashed by Obama's candidacy -- and the collapse of conservatism-- to expand the limits of the current debate. The Nation, unmortgaged to any economic interest or political power, will continue to challenge our downsized politics of excluded alternatives, propose bold ideas, ferret out the truth, expose corruption and abuse of power, and hold our politicians accountable. We will work with grounded realism and determined idealism to broadly reimagine the future.

For the first time in close to a decade, there will be sympathetic allies on the inside of the Executive Branch, and we will need to pepper them with smart and strategic ideas and offer clear alternatives. And working with allies -- activists, thinkers, scholars, progressive members of Congress, the netroots, engaged citizens --The Nation will drive not-yet-ready-for-prime time ideas into the political arena and reset the valence of our politics.

We know the Democratic Party is not the only vehicle for change. Historically, the party's finest moments have come when it was pushed into action from the outside by popular social movements. That same pressure is needed now. Retreat and timidity are losing strategies for addressing economic crisis, a shredded social compact, two wars which must be ended, and a damaged reputation abroad -- especially with stronger majorities in Congress and a new president who has raised expectations and promised real change.

After years of playing defense, it is time to unshackle our imaginations, build coalitions and craft creative strategies that will move, persuade and push President Obama and a new Congress to seize the mandate they have been offered. We are not naive. We know there are formidable obstacles ahead. Without organizing and grassroots pressure, the corporate power over both parties will continue to suffocate possibilities. And despite the metastasizing financial crisis, the conservative assault on government still cripples our sense of what is fully possible.

With the country at an ideological watershed, Obama has a historic opportunity to reshape the ruling paradigm of American politics. The old order that has ruled for nearly thirty years has imploded. Building a new order will require continued mobilization and strategic creativity. It will be vital to sustain a reform politics and movement independent of the administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress.

Progressives in the Senate and the House, many grouped around the Progressive Caucus, can provide both leadership and a public forum for new ideas. Cutting-edge and independent organizations like the Apollo Alliance, the Campaign for America's Future, the Institute for Policy Studies and the Economic Policy Institute can help us think outside the establishment box. Independent media, new and old -- and, as in the case of The Nation, new/old -- can track the limits of the debate and give new ideas greater visibility. Reform leaders at the state and local levels can champion legislation that will be a model for the national agenda. And the emerging grassroots movements, supported by the idealism, energy and civic spirit of the young, will be crucial to tap and channel into post-electoral organizing work.

History tells us how Franklin Delano Roosevelt was compelled to abandon caution because of the great traumas of his day. The Great Depression gave him little choice but to be bold. But it was popular social movements working outside the administration and empowered unions of that time that put strong pressure on FDR to carry out bolder reforms. That outside force was disciplined, strategic and focused, and it made the FDR years much better than if people had just sat back and let the President fend for himself against special interests. There's a powerful lesson in there for the movements of our times.

Likewise, our hard times may push Obama to become a more boldly reformist President than he had envisioned -- one who really does rearrange power on behalf of the people. But as we know from history and these last years -- as progressives have driven the agenda on war, a green economy, trade and energy independence -- Obama will need to hear from (and listen to) the millions of grassroots activists he has inspired if he is to overcome establishment power and well-funded lobbies.

I believe the fate of Obama's presidency will be determined by how bold he chooses to be. We may not agree with everything he will do, but he has a historic opportunity to be a truly transformative president and lead the country in a new direction. He has run a brilliant campaign in which he has spoken eloquently of the power and promise of "change from below." Will that understanding lead him to re-envision a government that truly reorders America's priorities and values, and reconnects with the needs of people? After all, isn't it long past time to confront neglected social needs, tackle the deep corruption in our financial system and corporations, restore our civil liberties and respect for human rights, enact universal health care, protect a worker's right to organize, invest in renewable energy and a green economy, end the endless wars, and regain America's standing in the world?

Today we celebrate. Tomorrow we begin our work -- with passion, conviction, hope, and determination.