The furor over Wisconsin makes it easy to forget the foreseeability of the state fiscal crises now used to justify attacks on public employees. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi valiantly fought to include billions more in stimulus funds to help the states, but could not sway Obama or her Senate colleagues.
Why didn’t Obama try to mobilize the public through Organizing for America and use his bully pulpit to get states the funds they would need to prevent these attacks on public employees? Because he did not want a public fight with Republicans over this issue. And while Obama expressed support for unionized public sector employees last week — which excited many progressives — Obama failed to take the preemptive actions necessary to help protect one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies.
That failure is the signature of the Obama presidency. Elected on a mandate for real change, Obama has refused to “ruffle feathers” over labor law reform, or any other measure that would boost union membership and power. Nor would he claim a public mandate for comprehensive immigration reform, granting immigrant rights supporters only increased deportations and a state-led backlash justified by the federal government’s lack of action.
For those who argue that progressives failed to mount the necessary massive public campaign to pass such measures, consider the absence of any grassroots movement in Wisconsin supporting the denial of public employees collective bargaining rights. If grassroots activism were a prerequisite for Obama’s actions, he would not have unilaterally escalated the war in Afghanistan or frozen federal employees pay for two years.
Obama did claim a mandate for health care reform, but was prepared to give up on the issue in late 2009 until Nancy Pelosi pressured him to act. And the passage of health care reform was not seen as sufficiently important to key Democratic constituencies like young people and racial minorities as to mobilize them to the polls in 2010.
To be fair, some believe Obama did push his 2008 mandate. According to a front-page story in the February 21 New York Times, it was precisely such “overreaching” that led to the “electoral backlash” against Democrats last November.
Really? Millions of Obama voters in 2008 stayed home in 2010 because he went too far delivering on his campaign agenda for change?
That’s hard to believe. But it is consistent with a media message that says the political center is always best, even if it means that the United States has greater income inequality than Egypt, rising numbers living in poverty, and among the highest unemployment rates in the industrial world.
The Progressive Dilemma
Here’s what the Wisconsin struggle highlights: Republicans nominate true believers, even if this risks losing the general election because they see great upside and little downside — they don’t fear that the winning Democrat will do much to hurt conservative interests.
In contrast, Democrats are so scared that Republican politicians will take truly destructive actions, that they feel bound to support Democratic politicians regardless of how little they deliver to Democratic constituencies. In this mindset, criticizing Obama simply boosts Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee, and is political folly.
This is why organized labor, immigrant rights groups, the DC-based anti-poverty groups, and other constituencies rarely if ever criticize Obama regardless of his actions. I even heard Howard Dean on MSNBC downplaying Obama’s failure to cut much military spending from the budget, while slashing CDBG, subsidized home heating oil, and community service grants. Dean instead highlighted how much better Obama’s budget was than that of House Republicans.
Democrats will win elections by playing not to lose, but these victories will not change the country’s fundamental direction. And as long as Democrats fail to hold those they elect politically accountable, and refuse to demand that their political leaders “ruffle feathers” in pursuing change, this dynamic will continue.
Let’s hope that Wisconsin is the wake-up call that starts to change this.