What Progressives Want From Obama’s Second Term

Even the president’s biggest supporters worry he could be too cautious in a second term. Anthony Woods on why he needs to embrace his inner FDR.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

It was almost midnight when a crowd of us gathered around a TV in the Obama campaign headquarters in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. As Election Day came to a close, President Obama took the stage in Chicago where he delivered an address that reverberated with the same passion and idealism that defined his 2004 convention speech.

That night we all shared in the sweetness of his redemptive victory. Those of us who believed in him began to dream again. Obama, finally freed from the yoke of reelection, could live out the true meaning of his promise. Watching that night, my only hope was that the president, fresh off the campaign trail, wouldn’t revert to the more cautious executive we’d sometimes seen during his first term.

This well-documented caution led to a narrative that the president was reluctant to demonstrate clear and decisive leadership. Conservatives charged he led from behind while liberals felt he failed to maintain the progressive banner by deferring too often to a dysfunctional Congress.

Perhaps this was a constitutional law professor’s respect for the separation of powers, a president frustrated by entrenched opposition, or the calculus of a shrewd political who let an unpopular Congress assume the risks if things went wrong. Regardless, significant amounts of energy and resources were spent countering this narrative on the campaign trail.

Now, with the campaign over, President Obama must set the tempo for a second term.

To borrow a military term, he has the opportunity to seize the objective and stay on the offensive.

Some may question such a strategy if you believe the country is crying for bipartisan government. However, what the country is actually crying for is effective government. The nation wants an atmosphere where reasoned, healthy debate is the norm and measured and intelligent solutions are the ultimate objective of government. Americans are tired of partisan gridlock and political scorekeeping. As long as the president remains open to compromise, staking out a progressive agenda and selling it aggressively to the public will fulfill the demands of the country.

And, while he won’t step off the inaugural stage this January with an 80 percent approval rating like 2009, he is fresh off a decisive victory. The voters granted him another opportunity and he must strike out boldly. With an Electoral College margin few expected and a healthy share of the popular vote, President Obama does have a mandate to pursue his agenda.

Yet time is of the essence. History shows that most second-term presidents only have a short 18-month window to accomplish anything before the chatter of the next presidential election cycle relegates them to legacy planning and lame-duck status.

Republicans emerged from this election with no clear leader, smaller majorities in the House and Senate, and a nominee many in the party are praying will stop talking. Many of their losses were due in large part to out-of-touch Tea Party candidates, troubling views on rape and abortion, continued alienation of minorities—particularly Latinos, and 1950s-era social views that pushed them further out of the mainstream. Simply put, Obama is now facing a Republican Party in disarray.

On objectives big and small, the president now has an opportunity to show true progressive leadership going into upcoming legislative fights. But advancing a truly progressive agenda requires perpetual activism in the face of the status quo. It means fighting so the rich pay a little more to keep the safety net intact and making a clear path to citizenship part of comprehensive immigration reform. It means believing we can put Americans back to work by rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure and investing in our future while trimming long-term spending. It means appointing the first openly gay cabinet secretary and female head of the CIA. It means using the power of the executive to aggressively safeguard the air we breathe and the water we drink.

It’s time for President Obama to assume the Roosevelt-inspired mantle of muscular liberalism. With the American social contract, middle class, and the poor under assault, the president has the opportunity to seize the political high ground and become the 21st-century defender of the nation’s progressive legacy. This is his moment. He only has to take it.