Progressive political change in American history is rarely incremental. With important exceptions, most of the reforms that have advanced our nation's status as a modern, liberalizing social democracy were pushed through during narrow windows of progressive opportunity--which subsequently slammed shut with the work not yet complete. The post-Civil War reconstruction of the apartheid South, the Progressive Era remaking of the institutions of democratic deliberation, the New Deal, the Great Society: They were all blunt shocks. Then, before reformers knew what had happened, the seemingly sturdy reform mandate faded and Washington returned to its habits of stasis and reaction.
The Oval Office's most effective inhabitants have always understood this. Franklin D. Roosevelt huffed down executive orders and legislative proposals like thunderbolts during his First Hundred Days, hardly slowing down for another four years before his window slammed shut; Lyndon Johnson, aided by John F. Kennedy's martyrdom and the landslide of 1964, legislated at such a breakneck pace his aides were in awe. Both presidents understood that there are too many choke points--our minority-enabling constitutional system, our national tendency toward individualism, and our concentration of vested interests--to make change possible any other way.
That is a fact. A fact too many Democrats have trained themselves to ignore. And it sometimes feels like Barack Obama, whose first instinct when faced with ideological resistance seems to be to extend the right hand of fellowship, understands it least of all. Does he grasp that unless all the monuments of lasting, structural change in the American state--banking regulation, public-power generation, Social Security, the minimum wage, the right to join a union, federal funding of education, Medicare, desegregation, Southern voting rights--had happened fast, they wouldn't have happened at all?
I hope so. Because if Barack Obama is elected president with a significant popular mandate, a number of Democrats riding his coattails to the House, and enough senators to scuttle the filibuster of his legislative agenda--all of which seem entirely possible--he will inherit a historical opportunity to civilize the United States in ways not seen in a generation. To achieve the change he seeks--the monumental trio of universal health care, a sustainable energy policy, and a sane and secure internationalism--he has to completely reverse the way Democrats have habituated themselves to doing business. If they want true progress, they have to be juggernauts. American precedent gives them no other way.
LET FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT be our guide. We take for granted now one of his signature political innovations: the idea of an executive "legislative agenda," a specific set of White House proposals, by which the success or failure of a presidency can be judged. FDR's was the first and most spectacular. He understood that the New Deal would pass quickly or it would not pass at all. And so, politically, he yoked Congress' willingness to pass his program without obstruction to Congress' willingness to address the national emergency tout court.
We're not facing a Great Depression-level emergency now. But with an unprecedented 77 percent of respondents in an Associated Press poll saying they believe the nation is on the "wrong track," and 9 percent telling the Gallup organization they approve of Congress' job performance, Obama is not without leverage. Ideally, Obama's Washington would resemble FDR's in 1935. "The stories of that period always seemed to follow the same pattern," Thomas Frank writes in his new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, "how the bright young man arrived in the city, fresh from law school, where he was put to work immediately on business of utmost urgency; how he went for days without sleep."
One of those exhausted bright young men, of course, was bright-eyed Lyndon B. …