Magazine article The American Prospect

Machinery of Progress

Magazine article The American Prospect

Machinery of Progress

Article excerpt

What President Barack Obama needs to do is.... No, let's try this again. The problem with Barack Obama is.... Stop! I can't bear to read another column that starts like that, much less write one. As the administration's first year in office comes to an end, the most distinctive thing about it is the degree to which people who should long ago have outgrown Great Man theories of history remain transfixed by a single individual. Every success is interpreted as a measure of Obama's skills and priorities; every disappointment is read as a revelation of his excess caution, naivete, or other flaws.

No doubt the president is one of the most compelling figures in American political history, perhaps more interesting as a person than any occupant of the White House since his moral opposite, Richard Nixon. His combination of political skill, intellect, discipline, confidence, and command of language is unprecedented, and his theory of politics, which brought with it the first actual Democratic electoral majority since 1976, may have changed the parameters of political possibility. It's hard to take your eyes off that phenomenon.

But even world-historical figures color within lines that they do not draw themselves. What presidents, governors, or even legislators are willing and able to do is defined by forces and efforts outside of themselves. And for progressive politicians, those factors include the condition and power of the progressive coalition and its organizations--its ability to generate and refine ideas, as well as its organizational capacity to bring pressure to bear on the political system. Every success or failure can be seen as a measure of the strength or weakness of that infrastructure.

Consider, for example, the widely predicted possibility that the only major accomplishment of the current Democratic majority before the midterm election will be an imperfect version of health-care reform, while financial reform, cap-and-trade, and long-term economic-investment strategies are blocked or delayed. If that occurs, is it simply that the president didn't give enough priority to those other causes?

That's one possible explanation. Another would be that the work underlying the current health-reform effort began years before Obama even announced his campaign for the White House. …

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