Very few things in life are as certain as political paradigms refusing to change absent massive, and sometimes violent, action by ordinary people in sustained grassroots efforts measured in decades rather than years. Electing Barack Obama didn’t make that rule invalid.
During an appearance on the Tavis Smiley show in November of 2008, Harry Belefonte related a story he heard Eleanor Roosevelt tell at a dinner party about her husband’s response to labor leader A. Philip Randolph’s eloquent recital of grievances. He also cautioned Americans to temper their enthusiastic optimism with the sober reality that our work is just beginning. Electing one man to one office was merely another step in that long journey toward a more perfect union.
It is hard to argue with that assessment as we have seen it play out over the last year on our national stage. Without the continuing involvement of the millions of ordinary Americans who turned out to put Barack in the White House, this fragile moment of unity is quickly fading into yet another missed opportunity. LBJ had King. FDR had the labor movement. Wilson faced off against Alice Paul.
Obama has a nation of fuzzy couch burritos, Tea Baggers and Yosemite Sam bloggers.
Alice Paul and her colleagues formed the National Woman’s Party in 1916 as a response to the leaders of the national suffragist movement accepting insignificant compromises in a partisan political maneuver to give democratic president Woodrow Wilson the breathing room he needed to wage World War I.
HBO crafted a wonderful film featuring Hillary Swank as Paul detailing the horrific struggle her group of young, courageous women went through to change the direction of a nation.
It took a sustained effort, beginning with Susan B. Anthony in the mid 1800s and culminating with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, to secure American women the right to vote, yet most of them choose not to exercise that right today. Same is true of all disenfranchised members of our societal compact who overcame centuries of abuse and suffering only to leave their Constitutionally-guaranteed right to vote dying on the vine and the right to peaceful assembly disturbingly silent on American streets.
Which leads me in a roundabout way to President Obama and the challenges he faced during his first year in office.
Most democrats have already forgotten why the man was elected in the first place. They forget the lines stretching for miles as birds of many feathers flocked to hear a new American story. Without significant numbers of moderate conservatives and ex-republican independents voting for him in open primary states, Barack would have never beat Hillary Clinton for the democratic nomination. Further, those same voters and the many they convinced along the way helped propel him to a narrow, though decisive, victory over John McCain in the general election.
Those facts were the immutable context of the 2008 election yet were quickly discarded as the democratic Congress rolled out its agenda in 2009, though the president deserves his fair-share of the blame for not making his party leaders understand the precarious position the country was still in and immediately implementing the strategy he outlined in Audacity of Hope and on the campaign trail.
The president allowed “bipartisan” to become a swear word to the fringes of both parties while leaving the vast majority of us in the middle wondering where the pragmatic progressive had gone when it came to tactical execution. The “solutions” being offered were the same old big government bromides the democrats always trot out. This produced a predictable, and avoidable, backlash from republicans in Congress that then filtered back out to their constituents.
In one short year, we have gone from Hope on a Rope to Hell in a Hand Basket.
I am convinced that while the momentum has shifted in recent months there remains enormous opportunity in the current mood of the country. While liberals may have dropped the protest ball, the tea baggers [sic] have snatched up the baton and are waving it enthusiastically. It isn’t too late to combine the energy and enthusiasm of the grassroots in both parties to force their congressional representatives to support innovative new strategies for our country rather than the same old corporate-friendly bullshit we’ve been getting from the RNC and the DNC alike.
I hope the president defines what that new direction might look like in his coming State of the Union address. I would love to hear about how we can use the traditionally-conservative mindset of smaller, more efficient federal government to craft sustainable solutions to long-running societal ills using all the tools at our disposal and not just those found in the democratic bag of tricks. None of the debates we are having today are new. We have been down these roads many times before and typically emerge only when a president can unite our divergent halves via a shared vision.
The president did that once before during the 2008 campaign. Can he do it again when he speaks to the nation after his first year in office?