2011-09-16 / Columnists

The New Frontiers

Primary The President
Commentary By Daniel Solomon

Everyone has a breaking point, a certain amount of frustration he is willing to bear before he sticks his head out the window and yells, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” I had my very own Howard Beale moment this week after President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on jobs and the economy. Coming on the heels of a summer of wild stock market swings and disappointing employment numbers, he proposed a small-potatoes package of taxcredits and modest infrastructure spending that won’t put people back to work and is unlikely to nudge our stubbornly stagnant GDP upward.

If you listened to the cable-news postmortems, you heard the reasoning behind Obama’s lackluster speech: the president couldn’t push for a second stimulus or any major initiative because the Republicans control Congress, the key to victory in 2012 is hewing close to the center, etc., all lame excuses. Of course, for us progressives, this isn’t anything new.

We have watched in horror over the past three years as the president fumbled the ball on every issue that mattered, giving up the game before he was even tackled by the other side. First there was the health-care debacle. Obama initially embraced Medicare-for-all, then supported a public option, a compromise that the left was okay with until he reneged on that too, championing a giant give-away to insurance companies instead, a bill that didn’t purge medicine of what was really ailing it, the profit motive.

Next came the fin-reg overhaul, which failed to end the casino culture of large banks and brokerage houses and did little to address the root causes of the 2008 economic meltdown, not to mention that the modest improvements it did make are currently being undermined by lobbyists from organizations like the Chamber of Commerce. Finally, we witnessed the fiscal policy fiasco, a pitched battle that started with skirmishes over the Bush tax cuts in December and concluded with the debtceiling surrender in August

The repeated routs are certainly upsetting, but not as much as the fact that some fights were never fought. In the wake of the BP oil spill, the administration passed on an opportunity to advance a cap-and-trade scheme that would have gone a long way to protecting our environment and future from the devastating effects of climate change.

It punted on its promises to Hispanics and never introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would permit the undocumented to come out of the shadows and begin down the path to citizenship.

It ran away from the workers of Wisconsin earlier this year as they struggled to preserve their collective bargaining rights.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired, of the betrayals and travails, of having to turn to Bill Maher every Friday night to stop my head from exploding. I refuse to accept one more cop-out from Obama, and nobody else should either.

Three years ago, the President presented himself as a populist-progressive, the second coming of FDR. And we elected him, overwhelmingly. He’s morphed into a wishy-washy centrist, a warmed-over version of Jimmy Carter. All the while, America has big problems that require big solutions, but an administration that seems unwilling or unable to think big.

In a way, my criticism may resemble that of the Tea Partiers. It, however, differs from theirs in two respects. I don’t want a person from that cadre of Know- Nothings called the Republican field to ever darken the door of the White House; I prefer executive impotence to executive stupidity. I don’t rejoice in seeing the President stumble; I truly want him to succeed.

Rather, I would like Obama to move back to the left. That won’t happen unless liberals mount an insurgency against him, so, let’s do it, let’s primary the president and make him earn back the faith we placed in him in 2008. One might automatically think that such a challenge is self-destructive and would weaken the Democratic Party. History tells a different story.

FDR almost faced a similar fate in 1936, when Huey Long planned to throw down the gauntlet, a scrap prevented only by the Louisiana senator’s assassination.

Before his untimely death, though, the threat he posed compelled Roosevelt to seek passage of the Second New Deal, a program that brought us Social Security, unemployment insurance, the Works Progress Administration, and the Wagner Act.

The question then becomes not a matter of if, but a matter of who; who will be Obama’s Huey Long.

I have two people in mind: Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist senator of Vermont, and Russ Feingold, the former Democratic senator from Wisconsin.

Sanders became an icon to many of us on the left when he filibustered an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich in an eight-hour floor speech. He is a Socialist not in the tradition of Lenin and Stalin but in that of Mother Jones and Eugene Debs. He is a man deeply committed to social justice and economic fairness with the gusto needed to back it up. Feingold, who went down in defeat in his re-election bid last year, is cut from the same cloth. He was the only legislator to vote against the Patriot Act and, post-Senate, created an organization with a mission to combat corporate control of our political system.

Both men would give the President a run for his money; some might fear that they could knock him off, but that’s okay, too.

If Obama can’t be salvaged, we have to work out other options.

Ultimately, the Democrats must nominate someone who can give voice to the principles we have stood by for a century, someone who is not afraid to point out the danger posed by an increasingly bigoted, extremist, and ignorant Republican Party.

Else, on January 20, 2013, we could be sitting through Rick Perry’s inauguration.

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