Barack Obama delivered his second inaugural address on Monday. In clear and compelling terms, he celebrated the accomplishments that “we, the people” of the United States have achieved throughout our history in creating a more perfect union. He declared that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action” and that “the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still.”
That rhetoric and that vision match the real-world achievements of the first term. In four years, he stabilized the economy by rescuing the automotive industry and preventing the collapse of the financial system. He invested in infrastructure, renewable energy, and education with a stimulus bigger in real dollars than the entire New Deal. He reformed the health care and student loan systems. Moving counter to recent political trends, he strengthened Wall Street regulations rather than cutting them. He advanced the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans as no other president ever has. He made the tax code more progressive. He ended the war in Iraq and began to wind down the war in Afghanistan. He accomplished most of those with the support of congressional Democrats and in spite of zealous opposition from Republicans determined to shut his presidency down.
Yet it was not just the conservatives who resisted these achievements. Too often, the president was also coping with recurrent complaints from the American left-wing commentariat, which was disappointed by his insufficient commitment to ideological purity. This chronic refusal to accept compromises as the price for progress made efforts at reform much more difficult. It is a major reason that even today the political dialogue often overlooks the scope of the first-term record.
Consider health care reform. The Affordable Care Act alone is sufficient qualification for Barack Obama to be considered a good president and the 111th Congress a good legislature. It created a robust regulatory regime to protect people from insurance company abuses and to make health care more affordable over the long term. It gave millions more Americans access to Medicaid and extended the longevity of Medicare. It was the greatest expansion of the American social insurance system since the Great Society. Liberal pressure no doubt helped make that happen.
Yet the ACA was considered a sellout by many left-wing pundits and bloggers because it lacked a public health insurance option. These critics wanted to abandon the cause entirely because of what the president once called a “sliver” of the proposal. Typical was the influential blogger Glenn Greenwald, who declared any reform bill lacking one to be nothing more than a “glorified bailout of the insurance and drug industries.” The loss of the public option was interpreted as a sign of the president’s wishy-washy temperament or even, to use the detractors’ jargon, “corporatist” political sympathies. The virtues of the legislation were forgotten in the quest for ideological perfection. The complaints were loud and frequent enough to amplify public discontent with the reform effort, making progress all the more difficult.
Like most Swatties, I am more liberal than most Americans. I would prefer a health care system similar to those of Canada, France, and the Scandinavian social democracies. Failing that, I would have liked the public option. Yet neither had any chance of passing Congress; the large public health programs we do have, Medicare and Medicaid, were passed when Democrats had 67 Senate seats and almost 300 House seats. Politics, as the cliché goes, is the art of the possible, and what is most desirable is not always possible. This is particularly true in this country, which has a Constitution lined with obstacles to major legislation. There are times when we must choose between commitment to ideology and action for the greater good. In these times, it is almost always better to act. An inability to solve all problems is a poor excuse for solving none of them.
Given these limits, Barack Obama’s presidency has still been more progressive than any since Lyndon Johnson’s. He has earned his second term and in the process established the foundation for a new regime of liberal governance. He has made compromises, but his agenda indicates a focus on building a more secure, prosperous, and inclusive America. He is calling for action in the next four years to deal with climate change, reduce gun violence, overhaul our immigration system, end the war in Afghanistan, and keep rebuilding the economy. If the successful “fiscal cliff” negotiations are any indication, he can find ways to enact at least some of that agenda despite a Republican House and a dysfunctional Senate. Whether the results will please leftist critics remains to be seen. The inaugural address sparked renewed enthusiasm for the president, but that will likely dissipate again when the time inevitably comes, once again, to compromise in the pursuit of progress.
Liberals face a choice in the next four years: heed the complaints of a relatively few vocal purist pundits, or continue to move forward. A smart left would support the left-of-center president, his party, and their policy initiatives, even as it organizes to bring bold solutions to a broad range of issues into the realm of political possibility. There is still progress to be made. The war on drugs continues. Gaping economic inequality persists. Our social insurance system needs to be made sustainable for future generations. President Obama’s successes are not ends, but they are steps along the long road to a more perfect union. He has given liberals a rare opportunity, and it is our responsibility to seize it.