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Last week a colleague made his case, and it's a strong one, for re-electing Barack Obama. Let me add my own case, for those who feel (like many of our Dagblog readers and commenters) that Obama is not progressive enough.
If you would like to have a president more progressive than Barack Obama, the only way to make that happen in the next twenty years (or more) is to re-elect Barack Obama first.
If Obama is defeated, the lesson that our political establishment will take away from that is that he lost because he was too far to the left. Saying that you didn't vote for him because he was too moderate won't matter. Saying that Obama would have won if he were more liberal will be pointless, even if it's true, because most people will draw the opposite lesson and they will act on that lesson. Even if that lesson is based on misunderstanding, it will change what it is politically possible for future candidates.
On the other hand, if Obama wins after having been called a socialist and a secret foreigner and what not, the lesson that people will draw is that calling someone a socialist doesn't work any more. The lesson will be that a liberal can still beat a conservative. (I know, I know, you don't think of Obama as a real liberal, but that's what he gets called, and the media won't distinguish real liberals from him.) The lesson will be that you can run to the left and win two terms as president. And that lesson will also change the political playing field.
I'm not talking now about how bad things will be if Obama is not re-elected, although it will in fact be very bad, and will be worst of all for the people that progressives care about most: the poor, the weak, the vulnerable. I'm talking about just avoiding evils. I'm talking about moving closer to actual goods.
We cannot have a more progressive president than Barack Obama next year. It is Obama or someone worse. On the other hand, after two terms of an Obama presidency we can campaign successfully for someone to Obama's left: not just as a protest candidate or as someone to pull the front-runners to the left during the primary season, but as a legitimate front-runner with a chance to win. We won't have to be on the defensive. We won't have to persuade people that a liberal could hypothetically win, because everyone will have seen that a liberal (or a "liberal") can. If we have two terms of Obama, we can talk about moving forward with more progressive policies (much as Reagan's two terms allowed conservatives to back candidates whose policies were well to the right of Reagan's). That doesn't guarantee that we'll get the progressive we want. But it guarantees us a real fighting chance for someone significantly more progressive.
Re-electing Obama doesn't mean that we'll get a more liberal president after him. But every road to a more liberal president over the next few decades starts with Obama getting re-elected first.
If you're sick of timid moderates who are afraid of being called too liberal, we need to re-elect Obama. If you're sick of Blue Dogs who shiv their party leadership because they're convinced that the voters are really conservative, we need to re-elect Barack Obama. If half a loaf leaves you hungry for more, re-elect Barack Obama and stay hungry.
I know some people think that if the conservatives and their terrible policies do enough damage, there will eventually be a backlash and the country will take a hard swing to the left. But we already had the backlash: Obama is what we got. And by the time the backlash came, our politics were already so far to the right that Obama looked like a massive swing. If Romney runs this country back into Bush II's ditch and buries our wheels in the mud, the swing back to the left will likely be to someone even more centrist than Obama.
Don't believe me? That's what happened in our presidential politics for the last forty-four years. Hoping for the backlash has only gotten us further and further away from what we'd like. Every Democratic president since LBJ has been a disappointment to the left, and their defeats have only led to more moderate, more disappointing Democrats. LBJ's refusal to run again not only made Richard Nixon president, but set the table for the next Democrat in the White House to be Jimmy Carter, a centrist with no real interest in extending the Great Society programs. Carter's defeat by Reagan meant that the next Democratic president would be Triangulating Bill Clinton, who not only "reformed" welfare but actually bought and repeated the right's No-Big-Government mantra. It's only because Clinton managed a second term that we have a President who's not much further to his right, although the defeat of Clinton's half-a-loaf healthcare plan ensured that Obama couldn't get more than the quarter-loaf he actually passed. And if Obama's stingy stimulus package isn't enough to get him re-elected, future Democrats will be afraid of any stimulus at all, no matter how inadequate and stingy.
Defeat moves us backward. Victory moves us forward. Talk about the Overton window and changing the terms of debate, but the way you move the Overton window for real is at the ballot box.
If Barack Obama frustrates you, vote for him. If you want more than what's on the table, you have to start by winning what's on the table now. Our best hope is for Obama's successor, and that starts with Obama's success.