OBAMA HAS MADE little attempt to challenge conventional political wisdom and stand firmly behind those policies and institutions most critical to American liberalism. While his studied pragmatism is preferable to the ideological rigidity of his predecessor, Obama neither tangibly defines “winning the future,” much less “hope and change,” nor rallies Americans to his opinions and his side. Obama clearly understands that Keynesian stimuli, strict regulation of the financial industry, and decent health care benefits are the only policies, here and abroad, that can stabilize a capitalist economy and boost the morale and life-chances of the populace. But, as long as he refrains from making a strong and repeated case for these and other progressive ideals, Grover Norquist and his pledge-happy disciples will keep filling the vacuum with a dogma Grover Cleveland would have shared.
Neither has the president who once spoke so eloquently about the role of social movements in U.S. history appreciated the need to nurture and support their weaker counterparts in the present. With the partial exception of gays and lesbians, none of the groups in today’s Democratic core has powerful institutions that can recruit volunteers and mobilize voters. Obama has avoided giving any serious aid to struggling labor unions, which, for all their woes, still represent almost 15 million workers of all races and play a critical role in such swing states as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Nevada. What’s more, the remarkable grassroots mobilization we witnessed during the 2008 election has shrunk into the tame and conventional campaign apparatus that is Organizing for America. Such a passive citizenry cannot sustain a vibrant progressive coalition—particularly in the long term.
DESPITE HIS DISAPPOINTING performance so far, Obama still has an opportunity to prevent this from happening. With nativists in command of the GOP, his base among the swelling number of Latino and Asian American voters is relatively strong, and he enjoys the unshakeable support of African Americans. Against a party still led by evangelical foes of homosexual rights, Democrats can also count on the growing ranks of culturally tolerant professionals who live in most metropolitan areas. What’s more, Republicans are not likely to nominate a candidate in 2012 who can appeal to young whites the way the affable Reagan did. As Ruy Teixiera and John Judis have been arguing for the past decade, the demographic potential for a Democratic majority is there.