It doesn’t matter what the president’s motives are for proposing better policies. What’s important is that progressives hold him to it.
A time-honored but largely useless exercise is trying to divine whether the actions of politicians are motivated by their core beliefs or by “politics.” For most successful politicians, the line between the two is murky. In fact, it has to be. Politics being the art of the possible, elected officials who try to exercise their power will always be navigating a circuitous course within a broad set of values.
So it is that some wonder whether the budget proposal put forth by President Obama is driven by the president’s belief that we need to take a more progressive direction to address the nation’s deep problems. Or is the president just deciding he needs to tack left in order to rally his base behind him for the upcoming election?
What matters is not the president’s motivation; what matters is what he does and how his actions are received. Having failed to reach a “grand compromise” with Republicans in the summer of 2011, including damaging cuts to core social insurance programs, Obama had no place to go but to his left. He was pushed there by finally realizing that his faith in his own ability to be an ideological bridge between left and right had been wrecked by the capture of the Republican Party by the extreme right. He was left looking weak to independents and a disappointment — if not a traitor — to his core supporters.
In many of his speeches since the summer’s debacle, and in many of the substantive proposals in the American Jobs Act and his new budget, President Obama has embraced a progressive view of the economy and put forth proposals that would revitalize the economy by creating middle-class jobs paid for by taxing the rich. The proposals are good policy — the only available course that offers hope to address our long-term economic problems — and good politics, popular with wide swaths of the public.
The real challenge for progressives is to use 2012 to increase the likelihood that a reelected President Obama will keep to the new course in 2013. To do that, we will need to do four things. The most important task is to demonstrate that progressive views on the economy are winners with the public and at the ballot box. That will require running aggressive issue campaigns on core economic issues — such as job creation, reining in Wall Street and the banks, taxing the rich and corporations, and ending corporate control of our democracy. The actions, message, and spirit of the Occupy movement need to be carried on across the country, including in battleground states and congressional districts, connected to voter registration, persuasion, and get-out-the-vote efforts.
The second key is to applaud and support the president and his allies in Congress when they do the right thing. When politicians perceive they are taking a risk, they need to hear cheers. There’s no point in asking “what took you so long?” or “do you really mean it?” Instead, we should welcome and encourage words and actions that are in line with our values. If we don’t, the president and other Democrats will believe those who say that you can never satisfy the left and seek more comfortable shelter with the advocates for the status quo.
However, applauding the good doesn’t mean giving up on the better. The third ingredient is to keep pushing for more. For example, we can applaud the president for wanting to change the corporate tax code to punish companies that take jobs overseas, but that doesn’t mean we should accept his proposal that there be no net increase in corporate tax collection. At a time when corporate taxes are at a historic low in terms of their share of federal revenues, and corporations are sitting on $2 trillion in cash, we should be raising more money from corporate income taxes, not treading water. We need to push for more progressive policies now to set the table for 2013, when Obama will again be attempting to enact legislation in the face of an onslaught from corporations and the right.
The last step is to do all of the above in a way that creates stronger coalitions, involves more activists, develops new leaders, and builds a real sense of momentum among progressives, from the large well-established infrastructure to the netroots and grassroots movements to the Occupiers. The more that we work together, both intentionally and by respecting the roles we all play, the greater our ability to actually move the nation in a progressive direction in 2013 and beyond.
Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.
The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.