Capitalizing on Hope in the Capital

It’s as though we’ve suddenly discovered a new form of Prozac called Obama. Miraculously, millions of depressed progressives have the audacity to hope again. Alas, hundreds of them are also churning out books, hoping to seize the moment and tell the new president what he should say and do.

Two of these political how-to books are The Power of Progress: How America’s Progressives Can (Once Again) Save Our Economy, Our Climate, and Our Country by John Podesta (with John Halpin), and Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency by Robert Kuttner.

Podesta, Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff and head of President-elect Obama’s transition team, in 2003 founded the Center for American Progress, which cynics might call Centrists for American Progress. Kuttner, a veteran progressive intellectual and founding co-editor of The American Prospect, is a fellow at Demos, a tank of thinkers somewhat left of Podesta’s group. Although both books debuted before Election Day, the authors gambled that the outcome would be in their favor and had the good fortune to be proven right.

For Kuttner, the inclusion of Obama’s name in the title has also helped drive healthy sales. However, while I value the contributions Podesta and Kuttner make to my political universe, a pithy article might have sufficed to capture the substance of these books.

The Power of Progress is, in essence, a jaunty infomercial for the Center for American Progress. Near the beginning, disclaiming a role as historian or social theorist, Podesta vows he has no intention of writing “another historical account of the Populist, Progressive, New Deal and Great Society era” — and then does just that for roughly 200 pages. Along the way, he goes to some pains to distinguish progressives from liberals and distance them from socialists. He splits hairs about the roles of faith, government, partisanship, and communalism vs. individualism, positing that liberals are less concerned with faith, more partisan, and have greater tendencies toward individualism than progressives, although even after a third reading, I was still unclear and unconvinced.

Podesta seems to suggest that progressives, occupying the sweet spot midway between liberals and socialists, have the right combination of ideals and practicality to take the country where it needs to go. “Progressives believe that America should be a country of boundless opportunity,” he writes, “where all people can better themselves through education, hard work, fair pay, and the freedom to pursue their dreams. We believe that this will be achieved only with an open and effective government that champions the common good over narrow self-interest while securing the rights and safety of its people.” It’s a solid, decent vision, grounded in the American Dream of opportunity, liberty, and justice for all, leavened with a belief in communal and governmental action for the collective good. But it’s hardly a revelation.

The intellectual nugget in the book is provided by Podesta’s colleague at the Center, senior fellow Gayle Smith, who has developed a concept of sustainable security: “By complementing the traditional concept of national security with human security, America can craft a strategy that is more sustainable….” to “deal simultaneously with short-term nation-state-based threats and the global challenges that transcend state borders.” As Podesta elaborates, in our world, “unsurpassed military and economic power alone does not necessarily translate into sustainable security for our country or the world. A new approach must recognize the changing threats of the twenty-first century and utilize the power of progressive values grounded in democracy, self-determination, economic opportunity, human rights, and humanitarian support.”

The concept that our true long-term security rests on securing human rights and sustainable lives for most of the world’s populace, rather than on the predominance of force, leads to a very different set of policies than those so recklessly pursued by the Bush administration.

A woman also provides the heart of Obama’s Challenge: “As Doris Kearns Goodwin, to whom this book is dedicated, observes, all of the great presidents used their leadership first to transform the public understanding of national challenges and then to break through impasses made up of congressional blockage, interest-group power, voter cynicism or passivity, and conventional wisdom,” writes Kuttner. He relates that he only undertook his book after Goodwin demurred at his suggestion that she write it.

Kuttner notes that Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson “changed the national mood, and then the direction of national policy…. not by being ‘post partisan’ or centrist, but by taking huge political risks on behalf of principles that the people came to deeply respect.” Or, as he quotes from Goodwin, “When you look at the periods of social change, in each instance the president used leadership not only to get the public involved in understanding what the problems were, but to create a fervent desire to address those problems in a meaningful way.”

Kuttner decries the “undertow of bad ideas” that have become part of the widely accepted frame of public discourse and can hamper presidential audacity: “(1) The fiscal cupboard is bare; (2) Government is generally perverse or incompetent; (3) Tax cuts are one of the few benefits that government can reliably deliver; (4) Private markets invariably work better than government. And the political corollary: (5) Successful Democrats need to talk more like Republicans.” Kuttner’s debunking of these notions, followed by his counter-narrative, is perhaps the strongest section of the book.

Unfortunately, he ends the chapter by putting words into Obama’s mouth in the form of the economic address he’d like the president to deliver — an entirely respectable list of “shoulds” without a shred of poetry to animate them. Podesta uses the same device, ending his book with a suggested inaugural speech that is no more successful. Neither effort comes anywhere near the eloquence and humanity that suffuse the best of Obama’s own speeches.

A pivotal difference between the books is their interpretation of the Clinton presidency. Podesta, of course, has a vested interest in making the Clinton years look good; after all, he played a key role in the administration and, at the time he began the book, was probably still wedded to the Hillary Clinton campaign. He touts accomplishments like the Family and Medical Leave Act and economic stability; and while he regrets the failure of the Clinton health-care initiative and the president’s personal lapses, he staunchly defends the administration as one that combined pragmatism with idealism to pursue progressive policy.

Kuttner, on the other hand, harbors a profound disappointment in President Clinton’s failure to fulfill his potential. He excoriates the Clinton administration for “fatal” triangulations, trying to play both ends against the middle. He maintains (and I would agree) that this unwillingness to take bold and principled positions lost health-care reform and won welfare reform — both to the detriment of progressive ideals. One of my colleagues recalls that, at the dawn of the first Clinton administration, Kuttner turned to him and said, “He’s one of us.” “I couldn’t imagine what he was thinking,” my colleague told me. “I never thought that for a moment.”

Kuttner’s book lays out a host of “teachable moments,” where Obama could walk down a well-trodden and pragmatic path toward an unsatisfactory outcome or map new territory to positively change the course of the nation. What most struck me in reading Obama’s Challenge, though, was an almost painful longing for Obama to succeed in taking his place in the pantheon of transformational presidents, almost like hoping against hope that, this time, we have not been seduced by a false messiah. Of all the burdens our new president must bear, surely our collective hunger for transformation must be one of the heaviest.

Taken together, the Podesta and Kuttner books highlight the constant tension between idealism and pragmatism, two forces that must be properly balanced to achieve societal transformation. An idealistic pragmatist, Podesta cites the sign that politico James Carville hung in Clinton’s Little Rock headquarters: “Change vs. more of the same; the economy, stupid; don’t forget health care.” In pragmatic terms, that sign could just as well have hung in Obama’s headquarters. But, as the Clinton presidency so trenchantly reminds us, the political talking points alone are not enough.

Transformation seldom rests solely on the shoulders of a great individual, but it seldom happens in the absence of a unique leader who emerges in the right place at the right time. Podesta and Kuttner, and so many of us, are hoping that Obama will prove to be up to our dreams for a more equitable and peaceful future — and we’d all better be there to help shoulder the burden.

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