This article appeared at The Nation on October 2, 2012.
“He’s made history. Now he has to think about legacy.” This analysis of Barack Obama came during a recent conversation I had with Representative Bennie Thompson, who joined the civil rights movement in Mississippi back in a time when no one was talking about a black president.
Was Obama’s victory perhaps the high point of his historic contribution, opening the doors of diversity to others? For Thompson and millions of others, the answer is no. Independent progressive movements will be needed to compel Obama to act. Progressive achievements may occur where the demands of movements converge with Obama’s need for a legacy.
The need to expand democracy is essential in its own right, but also for Obama’s re-election and legacy. California has just adopted same-day registration, for example, while right-wing politicians seek to suppress the vote and hollow out the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Beyond protecting the franchise, the main target for progressive reform is the Citizens United decision, with Obama encouraging a constitutional amendment to reverse it. What progressives can do is organize state by state against Citizens United, delegitimize the authority of a partisan Republican Supreme Court, push the president for two progressive appointees, and educate a new generation of Thurgood Marshalls to attack the undemocratic notions that money is speech and corporations are people.
A re-elected Obama will plunge immediately into a maelstrom of debate on deficit reduction and taxes. If he wins, the voter mandate will be to raise taxes on the rich and preserve Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. If Obama and the Democrats don’t find ways to defend that mandate, the possibility of leaving a positive legacy will be damaged at the beginning of the second term, perhaps even stillborn. Obama can also rely on a voter mandate to embrace the Stiglitz-Reich-Krugman school of economic thinking and support a “Robin Hood” tax on Wall Street transactions (as he once did before being smothered by his economic advisers).
From day one, Obama will need to use the bully pulpit and his executive powers if he wants a legacy of restoring progress toward reversing global warming. Given Beltway realities, progress is likely to be driven at the state and community levels in places like California, with supportive rhetoric and regulatory blessings from Obama.
Before November or shortly after, Obama’s legacy may be shaped by an Israeli attack on Iran, drawing America into regional war. Fifty-nine percent of Americans oppose joining Israel in going to war with Iran, and 70 percent oppose a unilateral US attack. Obama should rely on that mandate to navigate away from the brink and toward UN recognition of a Palestinian state.
Obama will have to pull back 68,000 American troops from Afghanistan by 2014 or break a fundamental pledge. And if he doesn’t want a legacy of restoring Richard Nixon’s imperial presidency (and provoking Muslim rage by his drone attacks), the former constitutional lawyer will have to engage in a serious revision of the 1973 War Powers Act. He also needs to embrace an FDR “good neighbor” policy toward Latin America—including Cuba—or face diplomatic isolation from our nearest neighbors.
Finally, Obama needs to resume the quest begun in his Columbia student days to freeze and reverse the nuclear arms race, the greatest threat to humanity alongside global warming. The United States has 5,113 nuclear warheads, which will cost $352 billion to maintain and “upgrade” over the next ten years. Obama’s opening to Russia, which Romney opposes, is merely an initial step in the process. Public opinion, inert since the 1980s nuclear freeze movement, will have to be reawakened, partly with his leadership.
A movement perspective always differs from a governing one, and in the best of times the two interact productively. Most progressives I meet believe the challenge is clear: get Obama’s back through November, then get in his face. But legacy might be the critical factor in focusing the president’s agenda in a second term.