A year after President Obama was elected, progressives can say that we got pretty much what we had a right to expect. President Obama ran as a centrist. In the campaign, he repeatedly talked about how he wanted to govern in a bi-partisan manner, with the Republicans as genuine partners. Given this campaign, it should not be a surprise to progressives that he has largely pursued a centrist agenda in office.
On key issues, this has meant that he has moved the ball forward, but certainly by less than we would have liked. His stimulus package was an important first step toward stemming the downturn and getting the economy growing, but it clearly was not large enough. We knew that even back in February, and with the economy having performed worse than projected, the package looks even more inadequate today.
He has supported cap and trade legislation as a step to limit greenhouse gas emissions, in addition to including some green elements in his stimulus package. At this point, the cap and trade proposals being considered in Congress have already been substantially weakened. At the moment, they are bogged down in House and Senate committees, with health care being given top priority by the administration and congressional leadership. At best, we can say that whatever gets through Congress may be a good first step towards achieving necessary emissions reductions.
President Obama has supported the Employee Free Choice Act, which will make it easier for workers to gain union representation, however this has also taken a back seat on the administration's agenda. The proposal faces serious opposition in the Senate and overcoming a filibuster will not be easy, but with some limited compromises and some arm-twisting from the administration, a version of the bill may pass next year.
President Obama's stance towards the banks and financial reform has been especially disappointing. It is essentially a status quo agenda, where his reforms would have done little to fundamentally change the industry, even before they were weakened by Congress. It is especially disturbing that he has not followed through on commitments made during the campaign to help homeowners facing foreclosure through bankruptcy reform or alternatively right-to-rent legislation.
There is now a growing consensus across the political spectrum for breaking up the "too big to fail" banks, including former Fed chairs Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan, and current FDIC chair Sheila Bair. At this point, President Obama would not be stepping out of line to join the chorus. Instead, his reform is a Rube Goldberg contraption that does little to address the fundamental issues.
President Obama put forward pretty much the health care program that he had run on during the campaign. It is a mixture of extending subsidies, mandating coverage and a public plan. However, his support for the public plan has been less than enthusiastic. President Obama and others in the administration have been quite explicit in their willingness to jettison a public plan to get a bill through Congress.
His conduct in the health care debate has perhaps been the biggest disappointment from a progressive perspective. During the campaign, Obama repeatedly railed against lobbyists, making a big point out of his refusal to accept lobbyists' money. However, in pushing his health care package, he made backdoor deals with representatives of the pharmaceutical industry, the hospital industry and the other major interest groups. This looks like exactly the sort of politics that President Obama insisted he would change if he got in the White House. Instead, he seems to have quickly fallen into the usual way of doing politics in Washington. This is perhaps not a surprise - it would not have been easy to confront the Washington lobbyist crew head-on - but it is a disappointment.
Interestingly, grassroots progressives have been remarkably effective in countering the Obama administration's willingness to compromise on the health care plan. They have insisted that the Democrats in Congress refuse to support a bill that did not include a public plan. By maintaining the resolve of progressive members, they have forced the leadership to include public plans in the proposals coming to the floor in both the House and Senate. The public plan will almost certainly be a weak version, however it can at least provide a starting point that can be improved through time.
This victory on health care can provide a model in other areas, like global warming, financial reform, and even the administration's foreign policy agenda. If grassroots activists can impose discipline on progressive members of Congress, it will help to ensure that not all of the Obama administration's compromises are with the right. Financial reform is an area in which the threat of blocking action by progressives can be especially potent, since that the bill taking shape is likely to offer little of value to progressives.
To sum up the first year, progressives got pretty much all that we should have expected. President Obama has created opportunities for change that would not have been available otherwise, but he is not going to substitute for a progressive movement. If we are going to see real change it will require organized and sustained pressure.