January 2009 seems so long ago-Barack Obama was inaugurated on a wave of popular enthusiasm for "change" as the country teetered on the brink of an economic crisis not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Obama quoted Tom Paine, but he just as easily could have recalled Franklin Roosevelt's words at his first inauguration: "This Nation asks for action, and action now."
He could have seized the moment and championed a new WPA program of federally-funded jobs for rebuilding America's infrastructure (much of which had been constructed originally by the WPA itself seventy five years ago), a real banking reform law to replace the Glass-Steagall Act scrapped years earlier by the Clinton administration, and the Employee Free Choice Act-the most important piece of labor legislation proposed since the Wagner Act of 1935. Instead, Obama quickly handed the political momentum to Democratic leaders in Congress who produced a stimulus bill loaded with arcane tax breaks and pork barrel projects, and a current belated effort at financial industry regulation that could still be shredded by amendments. As for labor law reform, that seems to have died in committee, as have so many past attempts.
What happened to all that desire for change? Why are the Obama administration's achievements so anemic compared to what Roosevelt accomplished? Does the answer lie in the current president's inherent caution and desire to build consensus from the center outward? Was the country never really ready to challenge the financial powers that be, even when they had taken us near the economic abyss? Or, are the "tea baggers" correct when they assert that Obama actually went too far left too fast and the country is now due for a hard right mid-course correction?
Frankly, right-wing opposition to the Obama administration is a no-brainer (in many ways); media pundits who seem shocked by the rise of this conservative backlash are either clueless or disingenuous. Democrats who are running scared of this phenomenon are simply showing more of their spinelessness. And even Republicans who have cynically fanned the flames of hard-right resistance are now reaping the whirlwind and discovering that the "tea party's" thirst for blood is taking down incumbents of all stripes.
What Obama and the Democrats should really look out for is the growing dissatisfaction of their progressive allies-the failure to move in a truly bold fashion to address the nation's inequities could cost more votes than all the right-wing braying on Fox News.
The recent U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts is quite instructive in this regard. Certainly, the Republican capture of a seat held by Edward Kennedy for nearly half a century was no mean feat. But looking closely at the numbers reveals that Scott Brown garnered just about 50,000 more votes than John McCain had in 2008. Martha Coakley, however, drew 800,000 less votes than Obama. So, this election was much less about a Republican surge than a lot of Democratic supporters apparently staying home. Coakley's lackluster campaign did not help, but local activists and union organizers in the Bay State also reported that many folks did not go to the polls because they were disgusted with Democratic failures to aggressively tackle the problems that confront the country.
Despite all the political headwinds blowing today from the right and all the warnings of a hurricane for incumbents come November, Democrats would be better off if they pressed forward with a real jobs bill and labor reform with some teeth in it, not to mention finding the political courage to address the question of immigrant workers' rights. The best way to head off the appeal of right-wing panaceas-like Arizona's recent law targeting Hispanics-is not to tack to the center and hunker down, but to show how a genuinely progressive economic and social policy benefits the vast majority of Americans.
Obama has the brains, and even the political brawn when he chooses to use it, to take the gloves off and confront the Republicans and the "tea baggers." Few on the right are proposing any solutions to our current crisis other than more of the voodoo tax cuts and deregulation that nearly drove us off the cliff in the first place. In fact, all the hot air about cutting federal spending-right now, in the midst of this prolonged period of economic uncertainty-will succeed only in running our fragile economy off the rails again.
If we are going to keep hope alive, we need to hope that the Democrats show some backbone and push a progressive agenda forward-political retreat can quickly turn into a rout, and a march back into the economic and intellectual dark ages from which we have just reemerged after much pain and struggle.
Dr. Zonderman is a Professor of History at North Carolina State University