Euphoria Not Enough

After a year of Barack Obama in the White House, progressive euphoria is nearly gone. But exaggerated hopes for Obama and the Democrats is giving way to the realization that it takes hard work to get a progressive agenda through Congress in the face of a worldwide recession, an opposition party determined to sabotage the president’s initiatives and conservative Dems who see shakedown opportunities.

In our Nov. 15, 2008, editorial (published before the election), we said we were under no illusions about Obama being a progressive messiah. Republicans called him a socialist with plans to soak the rich and spread the wealth. In fact, Obama restrained his progressive instincts and sought moderate compromise. He was willing to reach across the aisle to seek bipartisan deals. We expected Obama to operate in a centrist manner, similar to that of Bill and Hillary Clinton. That prediction has proven true — but Obama’s challenge has been in dealing with conservatives in the Democratic Party, not with the GOP, which has contented itself with demonizing him.

Recall that Obama had the Democratic nomination only a few weeks before George W. Bush’s Treasury secretary dropped the bomb on Congress, warning that Wall Street was in danger of a meltdown that could cause a worldwide depression.

Obama’s first act after his election was to assure the financial markets with the choices of Larry Summers as his chief economic adviser and Timothy Geithner as his Treasury secretary.

Obama chose placation of Wall Street over confrontation. If he had chosen to take on the big banks, who would have had his back? Senate Democrats couldn’t muster a simple majority, much less the 60 votes needed under Senate rules, in April to pass a measure to let bankruptcy judges change mortgage terms to let cash-strapped homebuyers stay in their homes. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), sponsor of the measure, said of the banks that opposed the measure, “They frankly own the place.”

Still, the economy stabilized and there are plenty of reasons for progressives to be glad Obama beat John McCain and Sarah Palin. For one thing, General Motors and Chrysler are still in business, as are their suppliers, dealers and ancillary services. If McCain were in the White House, those two car companies probably would be liquidated and Republicans would be celebrating the rout of the United Auto Workers. But the chain reactions in the economy wouldn’t have been good news for Ford, Toyota, Honda, other automakers or other American industries.

During his first 100 hours in office, Obama ordered a freeze on pending regulations left over from the Bush administration. He also reinstated the Freedom of Information Act after Bush-era obstruction and denial of requests for public documents. Later he removed restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research.

The first bill he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act on Jan. 29, which overturned a Supreme Court decision that a longtime employee could not sue for pay discrimination because the discrimination had been going on for 19 years.

Obama also managed to get a $787 billion economic stimulus bill through Congress in February. It has a number of progressive features and is credited with providing 640,000 jobs so far. It is expected to provide 3.5 million jobs by the end of 2010.

The package included everything from tax credits for the poor and middle class (up to $400 for individuals and $800 for couples) in 2009 and 2010 to a patch to keep middle-class taxpayers out of the alternative minimum tax. It provided $87.1 billion to help cash-strapped states cover Medicaid costs and $53.6 billion to help states prevent cuts to essential services, such as education. It extended unemployment compensation and helped the unemployed pay 65% of their health insurance under COBRA. It provided food assistance and increased the maximum Pell Grant for higher education assistance by $500, to $5,350.

The bill invested $37.5 billion in clean energy projects, $27.5 billion for highways and $17 billion for public transportation.

Now Congress is on the verge of passing a bill that would put the US on the road to providing universal health coverage. Obama is supportive of labor law reform and Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have been working on the Employee Free Choice Act that would help workers organize and force employers to the bargaining table. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has been working with Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on a bill to address climate change. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, have been working on another jobs bill that will have to be reconciled with the $174 billion jobs bill the House passed. Obama also has promised to overhaul immigration in his first term, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is reluctant to push such a politically tough vote on her members without first seeing the Senate move on it.

In foreign policy, Obama instructed US military leaders to start planning a withdrawal from Iraq, ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed within a year — only to be frustrated by Congress. He ordered an end to torture and the CIA’s secret prisons. Progressives who were disappointed that he ordered more troops to Afghanistan weren’t listening during the campaign.

Obama’s popularity has come down from 70% approval in Gallup polls at his inauguration to about 50% now. But passing a health care bill and getting the unemployment rate below 8% should perk up Dems’ hopes as they head into mid-term elections.

Health Care: Close the Deal

The Senate passed a good health care bill — not a great bill — on Christmas Eve after Republicans exhausted every delaying tactic, pushing the final vote to the day before Christmas even after it became apparent four days earlier that Majority Leader Harry Reid had 60 solid votes for the compromise.

The 60-39 vote broke along party lines, as expected. Republicans cast not a single vote for these modest reforms that offer federally subsidized health coverage for 30 million working poor Americans and stops insurance companies from denying coverage for people with pre-existing conditions but also protects the bottom lines of those insurance companies.

It now looks like the House will simply amend the Senate bill and send it back (what is referred to as the “ping pong” process) after Republicans threatened to delay setting up the conference committee.

Some progressive activists are urging the House to reject the Senate bill and start over next year. But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who advocated a single-payer plan and a public option as a fallback, ended up voting for the bill. “The bill is not as strong as I wanted and I will work to improve it, but it begins to move this country toward the long-time goal of providing comprehensive, affordable health care for all Americans. The legislation would provide health insurance for 31 million people, end the odious practice of denying care for people with pre-existing conditions, and provide affordable primary care and low-cost prescription drugs for 25 million more Americans in 10,000 more communities. We can do better, but this is an important step forward.”

House members can try to improve the bill, but progressives likely will be frustrated by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who have indicated that they won’t go along with substantial changes in the Senate bill. Since the Democrats need their votes to pass an amended bill, they should go ahead with the best bill they can get past Lieberman and Nelson, then get to work on fixing the tax-related reforms in the budget reconciliation bill, which can be passed with a simple majority.

Some progressives deride the bill as a giveaway to insurance companies, but you wouldn’t know it by the way the health profiteers are still fighting it.

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 1, 2010


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