Every week on the lecture trail, I meet progressives who are demoralized and/or infuriated by Barack Obama’s performance as president. They insist that they will not work for him again or even vote for him. Many have signed petitions saying as much. They are finished with President Obama.
I have criticized many of Obama’s policies. But my progressive friends and allies are overlooking three things: (1) Many of them played a disastrous role in the 2000 election, preventing the Gore administration that should have been; (2) Their charge of betrayal is exaggerated; (3) Obama, for all his temporizing and capitulation, is America’s most progressive president since FDR, and electing a more compelling human being to the White House is probably impossible in this country.
America and the world would be better off today had there been a Gore administration. President Al Gore would not have invaded Iraq, showered the rich with tax cuts, doubled the federal debt or let corporate lobbyists devise America’s energy policies.
As for betrayal, Obama has governed in the very manner of liberal-leaning moderation that he espoused in the 2008 campaign. He never promised to get out of Afghanistan, scale back the military empire or break the banking oligarchy. Too many progressives and others imagined they were electing Martin Luther King Jr., which set them up for a mighty disillusionment.
To be sure, Obama has made brutal concessions, mostly in hostage situations. He cut Medicaid to get a budget deal, carrying on the Beltway tradition of bashing poor people first. He offered to increase the entry age for Medicare. He cut an atrocious deal in the debt ceiling fiasco, giving Republicans 98 percent of what they wanted.
Nevertheless, Obama is still a figure of singular promise in American politics, and he has important accomplishments to build upon.
Obama abolished the United States’ use of torture and the CIA’s secret prisons. He restored the liberal internationalist approach to foreign policy and made a historic outreach to the Muslim world. He stabilized an economy that was spiraling into a depression. He expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit and made major investments in job training, education, infrastructure, clean energy, housing and scientific research. He saved the automobile industry.
He forced the health insurance companies to stop excluding people with preexisting conditions and to stop dropping people when they got sick. He made an enormous and historic gain toward universal health care. He signed a financial reform bill that established a consumer protection agency and put most derivative trading on an open exchange under the regulatory umbrella.
He ended the war in Iraq exactly as he promised.
He ended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He blocked Republicans from eliminating federal funding for Planned Parenthood. He suspended deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants lacking a criminal record. He has supported family unity in immigration policy. He stood up to the oil lobby on the Keystone XL pipeline. And he has represented the United States with consummate dignity.
Somehow, all of this is routinely discounted or forgotten. If Obama does not win a second term, a Republican administration will savage Medicare and Medicaid, enact yet another massive tax cut for the 1 percent, and try to privatize Social Security. Obama, for all his shortcomings, is still indispensable to the cause of ending the Reagan era, and of preventing something even worse than the administration he succeeded.
• Dorrien is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and professor of religion at Columbia University.