Can progressive goals be meaningfully advanced during re-elected President Barack Obama’s second term, or will continued trench warfare over federal budget deficits subvert efforts to build on his first-term accomplishments? With Senate Democrats still well short of the 60 votes required to break a filibuster, and the House remaining in solid control of Republicans deeply hostile to government, prospects for major new federal legislation seem poor. But by concentrating his energies outside of Washington, shining the light on examples of how his first-term policies are positively affecting average Americans, Obama can further rebuild public support for government and lay the groundwork for more ambitious future initiatives.
During the campaign, Obama said his biggest first-term mistake was “thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that's important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.” So from a purely political standpoint, he has come to recognize that campaigning is as important to advancing his goals in office as it is to winning in the first place.
Now that he has been re-elected, his campaigning will be on behalf of government policies that are demonstrably helping people. Obama’s success in drawing connections between his bailout of the auto industry and the thriving manufacturing plants he frequently visited not only helped him win re-election, it helped voters to see that government really can have a positive impact. Similarly, New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie’s enthusiasm for Obama’s open-ended support for the state’s hurricane victims reinforced the value of effective government to the general public. Now that voters have repudiated Mitt Romney’s agenda, which entailed rolling back Obama’s accomplishments and reverting to past Republican efforts to dismantle government, a new opening has been created to clarify why they were right to choose the progressive vision.
In the months ahead, most of the action in consolidating and expanding on Obama’s first-term accomplishments will occur in states and localities rather than inside the Beltway. Implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the pursuit of Race to the Top innovations in public education, and efforts to expand environmentally friendly jobs and industries are now largely in the hands of individuals not on the federal payroll. By systematically calling attention to the most successful of those experiments, the president can simultaneously communicate to the public that his policies are improving outcomes while highlighting best practices that other states and localities should strive to emulate. That process, in turn, has the potential to create a virtuous cycle by fertilizing future support for progressive legislation at all levels of government
It is true that the Affordable Care Act won’t take full effect until 2014, many of the experiments under Race to the Top are still in early stages with uncertain results, and green jobs initiatives vary widely in their record so far. But there are already plenty of success stories to tell with the prospect for many more on the near horizon. By encouraging the states and localities that are most committed to making those initiatives work, President Obama can bolster their enthusiasm while helping other jurisdictions to see why they should follow suit.
The federal government led the way with most of the major progressive accomplishments of the past, from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Act to the Great Society to the implementation of environmental protections to the Affordable Care Act. But for now, states and localities have most of the responsibility for carrying out the latest round of reforms. To keep the progressive movement forward, the president should stay on offense by traveling the country to highlight how better government is leading to better lives as states and localities implement his policies. Even if Congress won’t allow him to enact additional legislation on the scale of the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s focus on telling success stories can lay the foundation for the next progressive president to build on those accomplishments while pushing states to move in the same positive direction.