The political gods have not favored progressives in recent years. The 2008 election delivered an extremely popular Democratic president, 60 Democratic votes in the Senate, and a strong majority in the House of Representatives. But all have gone downhill since then.
Barack Obama proved to be a moderate, whatever the Fox News-fueled conservative base might claim, and that doomed progressives’ hopes for a more ambitious economic-stimulus package. Democrats’ filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate soon evaporated, along with any chances for single-payer health insurance. And the 2010 election produced a GOP-controlled House and a hard-line conservative legislative agenda to abolish the activist role of government in modern society.
Progressive prospects look even worse for 2013. The GOP is likely to retain its control of the House, and may well take over the Senate as well. Democrats might even lose the White House.
Despite this bleak news for progressives, all is not necessarily lost. Progressives now have a 12-month window of opportunity, during which they may have more leverage in policy debates than at any time since 2008. This silver lining in the storm cloud is not based on Pollyannaish thinking. It is rooted in cold political calculus.
President Obama needs progressive support as never before if he is to have any chance of retaining the White House in 2012. This electoral desperation gives unions, environmentalists, and liberal social-change groups a new degree of influence—if they are able to pick their fights and play hardball.
The leverage comes from the Left’s dissatisfaction. The intensity of liberal Democratic support for the president has suffered over the last 32 months. In August, 85 percent of liberal Democrats approved of President Obama’s performance, according to a Pew Research Center survey. But only 60 percent strongly approved of his record. At the same time, the proportion of Democrats who saw Obama as a strong leader, able to get things done, had fallen 10 percentage points since May. And fewer liberal Democrats saw Obama as able to stand up to the Republicans and get things done. Meanwhile, there is far greater intensity of anti-Obama sentiment among conservative Republicans.
If the 2012 election turns on the willingness to staff phone banks, go door-to-door in get-out-the-vote efforts, and turn out on Election Day, the GOP will clearly have an edge.
To turn around his pivotal intensity deficit, Obama needs to take actions in the next few months that inspire and motivate his base. “He has got to do more for the rank and file,” said Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO.
Given the current gridlock on Capitol Hill, the president will have to channel his initiatives through executive actions.
China offers an opportunity. Progressives would like Obama to promise that he will sign China currency legislation that is now tied up in the House of Representatives. But even though House Republicans appear determined to block the bill, Obama can still act by designating China as a “currency manipulator” in its semiannual Treasury Department report on currencies. That would trigger consultations with Beijing, and possibly lead to sanctions.
GOP White House contender Mitt Romney has promised such a designation. Progressives ask: If it’s good enough for the leading Republican presidential candidate, why is it not good enough for Obama?
If picking a currency fight with Beijing is a bridge too far for the moderate Obama, he might lift another page from the former Massachusetts governor’s platform and end all U.S. government procurement from China until Beijing stops blocking its own public procurement from foreign firms.
And when it comes to procurement initiatives that appeal to progressives, Obama doesn’t have to be limited to China.
Uncle Sam spends about $500 billion a year buying goods and services. And Washington has discretion over whom it buys from and what standards they need to meet.
Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, has suggested that the White House leverage existing defense procurement by telling contractors to increase the domestic content of the military equipment, technology, and supplies they sell to the Pentagon.
It could do the same with all government procurement. The White House could require all government contractors and companies that receive government grants to post on the Internet where they get their parts and services, whether from American or foreign suppliers. Such transparency could do wonders for increasing the domestic content of products sold to the federal government, and it might have spillover effects on goods sold to commercial customers.
That could be good politics for the president. Nine in 10 Americans believe that taxpayer-funded government contracts should only be for U.S.-made goods and services, subject to international trade obligations, according to an Alliance for American Manufacturing survey.
Without the enthusiastic support of progressives, President Obama’s chances for reelection are questionable. Passage of the jobs bill might have reenergized progressive voters, but that is no longer an option. That leaves “second-best” executive actions. It’s not universal health care or 5 per cent unemployment, but it could demonstrate progressive leadership and keep Democratic hopes alive.
This article appears in the Oct. 20, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.