Obama and the Progressive Movement

One day during the presidential transition, when I had been named the liaison to the progressive community, someone observed to me that "my people" didn't seem to be very happy. I responded that it was not the job of the progressive movement to be happy.

I wasn't intending to be snarky. My point was that progressives' job is to keep pushing, keep organizing, keep agitating, keep demanding better things. Martin Luther King said that people kept asking him when he would be satisfied, and he answered, we will never be satisfied "until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

It's the nature of our movement to never stop fighting for things to get better, there are of course substantive issues where at least some progressives are going to part ways with Obama. On foreign policy, the most important areas of concern so far are leaving so many residual forces in Iraq and expanding forces in Afghanistan without a clear understanding of the overall strategy (including an exit plan). On the economy, some of us remain extremely concerned about the Geithner/Summers bank bailout strategy, which appears to be too much of a continuation of the Paulson bailout strategy while giving banking executives far too much leeway and far too little accountability. These are not small issues.

Having said all that, though, I find myself walking around in a little bit of shock that a president, at least on the central strategic approach to the big policy issues, seems to be following the path I would advocate.

In traveling all over the country promoting my new book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, I have been saying that the lesson of history is that Obama should seize this opportunity to think very big and bold, to be transformative in pushing to fundamentally re-structure our economy, our energy system, our health system, and our very politics. And that is exactly what President Obama is doing - no credit due to me or any other advice given. He is just listening to his own remarkable political instincts.

Though the recent economic recovery bill was too small and had its flaws, it was literally the biggest single investment in progressive social capital - health care, public education, green jobs, infrastructure, universal broadband - in history. His budget might well be the most audacious and sweeping in progressive history as well - certainly one that competes with LBJ's 1965 budget and FDR's 1935 budget. Obama is fulfilling his promise to the America people in the 2008 campaign: big, bold, truly transformative change.

Frankly, I didn't expect this would happen, at least not right away. Watching him pick mostly centrists for cabinet positions, and knowing how the DC establishment can use a thousand big and small reasons to argue against transformative change, I feared that Obama would be convinced to scale back his ambitions for what I call in The Progressive Revolution a Big Change Moment, similar to ones we had in the 1860s, early 1900s, 1930s, and the 1960s. Over the last few decades, Democrats have adopted a culture of caution - they have tended to think small and go slow. I feared that Obama would succumb to that culture.

But he is rising to the challenge. And it is imperative that those of us in the progressive movement rise with him. We shouldn't hesitate to say where we disagree, especially on the big things like Iraq, Afghanistan and the banking crisis. And we shouldn't hesitate to push for the best possible policy details - to make sure that health care reform really is universal and has a public plan option for people being screwed by insurance companies, that the climate change policy really is effective and tough in reducing carbon emissions ASAP, and that the budget maximizes investment in the things that matter.

But we should be very clear: Obama has decided to cast his lot with those of us who have been fighting for big, transformative change. If he succeeds, we succeed, and if he fails, we fail - and we fail for at least another generation, because no Democrat will take big risks again for a very long time if Obama loses this gamble.

2009 is the year. This is the moment when progressives, and America, show whether we can live up to the heroes of our history. Progressives in the past have ended slavery and Jim Crow, given women and minorities and the poor the right to vote, created the National Parks System, made dramatic improvements in cleaning up our air and water, and launched transformational programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start. Barack Obama has boldly announced his ambition to join those historic heroes and create another Big Change Moment. This year will decide whether Democrats in Congress and the progressive movement can help him deliver on that noble ambition. Seize the day.

Mike Lux is the author of The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be.