Obama Can Still Bring Real Change

by Randy Shaw on May 28, 2013

Five months into his second term and many already see President Obama as a “lame duck” whose ability to bring real change has passed. Initially promoted by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal, the notion that Obama “doesn’t really rally people” or influence the public has spread, leading even supporters to wonder if the President’s ability to bring “Change” has passed.

It has not. And for a President said to be irrelevant, Obama sure has been busy. Obama has been at the center of major struggles around new gun regulations, the budget, the sequester, Guantanamo, drones, redefining the war on terror, and the rollout of Obamacare. His strong support for comprehensive immigration reform has boosted its prospects, and his rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline—still in doubt—would be the most powerful action any world leader has taken to combat climate change. Obama can still bring real change, but activists must keep up the pressure.

For all the power of the progressive blogosphere and social media, FOX News and right wing media can still drive national political coverage. This applies not only to their leading other media to overplay the political impact of the Benghazi and the IRS “scandals,” but also to their broader narrative of Obama’s ineffectiveness as an agent of Change.

To be clear, many progressives share this latter critique, particularly seeing little tangible difference between Obama and George W. Bush on national security issues (a framing Obama publicly challenged last week when he “redefined” the war on terror). But even those disappointed over the extent of progressive “Change” since 2009 should not downplay what has been achieved and what still can get done.

Health Care, Immigration Reform and Climate Change

When Barack Obama took office, progressives had a long “to do” list. Some items, like labor law reform, never even came to a vote in 2009-10 and are now politically unachievable. Others, like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 , were quickly enacted.

But the three pillars of what activists saw as Obama’s progressive agenda were health care, immigration reform, and measures to combat climate change.

Obama put all his political chits into enacting a version of health care reform that disappointed progressives and debilitated his political base. But when all is said and done, Obamacare will bring affordable health care for millions of low income and working class Americans and in the current political climate its passage in 2010 seems nearly miraculous.

Obama failed on immigration reform in 2009-10, though the rise in Republican opposition (embodied by John McCain going from a sponsor to an opponent as he faced a primary challenge) meant the measure would likely not have passed even if he had done everything right. But he has helped push the drive for reform this year, and, if it passes, it represents a signature achievement for the Obama Presidency.

This leaves climate change. Congress, not Obama, was blamed for failing to enact a comprehensive climate change legislation in 2009-10, though many believe it was a mistake to include diverse items in a single bill. But Obama has not been progressive on climate change, and there may be no area of his presidency where his words are so unmatched by his actions.

Obama now has a chance to go from goat to hero on climate change by rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline. This action does not require passing a new law or regulation. Nor would it alienate many Democrats, as those whose votes twice put Obama in the White House overwhelmingly oppose Keystone.

That Obama’s chief contribution to combatting climate change would be stopping a bad project from happening was not what activists had in mind when he took office in 2009, but that’s the most powerful action the current political environment offers. And if Obama does the right thing—and many believe he won’t—it would give him a record of progressive accomplishment that outpaces anyone since FDR

Obama v. Clinton

While Obama draws criticism and even scorn from some progressives, Bill Clinton is cheered as the nation’s greatest Democrat and Hillary Clinton has the 2016 presidential nomination for the asking. But consider Clinton’s actual record as President and it is not in the same universe as Obama’s when it comes to progressive change.

While Clinton’s 1993 tax hike, signing of stronger Clean Air Act regulations, and job creation for the working class were all progressive, he took many more actions—such as eliminating the federal welfare entitlement (so called welfare “reform”), allowing the GOP to decimate HUD and Legal Services, signing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and repealing the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that limited activities and affiliations between commercial banks and securities firms—that hurt progressive interests far more than anything done by the Obama Administration.

Clinton defenders would say that, unlike Obama, he never claimed to be aligned with progressives. Yet that does not justify Clinton being treated as a Democratic Party hero while Obama is criticized as unable to deliver.

For all of his faults, Barack Obama faces the most hostile political environment any President has confronted. And yet if activists continue mobilizing in favor of immigration reform and against Keystone, Obama’s second term could bring the real change that the millions who elected him have sought.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century

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