On election night a year ago, celebrations across the North Bay included dancing in the streets. The voters had spoken — loudly — for Barack Obama, who won 74 percent of ballots in Sonoma County and 78 percent in Marin. Spirits were sky high, and so were expectations.
That evening, as he spoke to the nation from Chicago’s Grant Park, Obama repeated his campaign mantra: “Yes we can.” But a year later, the words are less uplifting.
“If this financial crisis taught us anything, it’s that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers,” Obama declared in his election-night speech. Yet Wall Street is now doing quite a bit better than Main Street.
Federal bailouts have done wonders for huge financial firms, but stimulus money has done relatively little to create jobs or to provide liquidity for the housing market and small businesses. The Dow has climbed back to 10,000, but jobless figures have reached 10 percent.
A year ago, Obama spoke of parents who could not sleep as they wondered how to “save enough for their child’s college education.” Tonight, some will worry about how to pay for rising tuition at Santa Rosa Junior College or Sonoma State University.
As president, Obama has done a lot more than John McCain would have to mitigate the economic crisis for most Americans. Yet the new administration has not led with a strong federal jobs program or a stimulus package that could have done much more to save homeowners from foreclosures.
Meanwhile, the depletion of domestic resources for warfare continues unabated. Escalation is widening the funnel to Afghanistan, where war now absorbs several billion dollars from the U.S. Treasury each month.
Yet the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan is counterproductive. “The only meaningful way to halt the insurgency’s momentum is to start withdrawing troops,” a Carnegie Endowment report concluded early this year. “The presence of foreign troops is the most important element driving the resurgence of the Taliban.”
As the president escalates the Afghan war, one of the most insightful statements in his inaugural speech — addressed to unfriendly foreign leaders — now has a haunting quality. “People will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy,” Obama pointed out.
During a visit to Kabul in late summer, I saw heartbreaking results of Washington’s current priorities in one of the world’s poorest nations. Afghan children are suffering and dying from the ravages of poverty while 90 percent of U.S. expenditures in their country are going to military operations.
In many ways, President Obama is providing a welcome contrast to the previous eight years. Yet often — on issues ranging from climate change to civil liberties to human rights — the changes are too small and too slow.
This fall, advocates of a “robust” public option discovered that the White House was willing to describe it as a non-essential feature of health care reform. The Obama campaign’s clarion call for “universal health care” has morphed into an agenda for health insurance reform.
The gaps between lofty rhetoric and policy realities have begun to erode Obama’s base particularly among progressives who were at the core of volunteer activism and enthusiasm for his 2008 campaign.
In fairness, Obama never promised progressive voters a rose garden. Genuine and far-reaching change requires sustained political organizing at the grassroots. It cannot be achieved by virtue of any election.
Like high-wire cyclists on a long journey, progressive Democrats need to maintain a steady balance, closing ranks with others in their party to defeat Republicans while fighting on behalf of key principles within the Democratic Party. With so much at stake, lapsing into disillusioned inactivity is not a viable option.
Originally published in (Santa Rosa, Calif.). Reprinted with the author’s permission.