Progressives Should Channel Their Frustration With President Obama Toward Local Action


Make no mistake, President Barack Obama is running for re-election. 

Obama's third State of the Union address was a campaign speech, and he has since been traveling across the country to sell his vision for the next four years. Going public is part of a strategy in an era where middle-class Americans feel frequently ignored by politicians on both sides of the aisle, especially when trying to garner support for a legislative agenda. This strategy has a cost when the media spotlight, once directed at the national debate, often serves to heighten the sense of public alienation while simultaneously drawing attention away from governance in state and local communities. The question at hand is whether the themes and broader vision in the State of the Union will resonate locally in terms of practicality, substance, and of course, voter turnout.

President Obama touched on many issues and themes that will resonate with the middle class, but to what effect? There was something in the speech for a myriad of experts and interests: foreign policy, energy policy, a challenge to businesses along with incentives, reforms in the tax code, education, and college affordability. All of these were wrapped in themes of American values, success, recovery, a shared destiny, and the importance of the middle class. Political scientists, and many others, realize that State of the Union viewers self-select and so the speech itself will most likely result in little long-term gain for the President, perhaps most significantly in his re-election campaign. So where does the real value rest?

It rests in a vision, one yet to be realized. The President faces the challenge of a track record in 2012 and there is palpable disappointment among his rank and file party members. Still, the President is working to find a balance between vision and governance. As a progressive millennial, I do get caught up in the President’s soaring rhetoric that propelled him to victory four years ago, but in the tradition of the Roosevelt Institute| Campus Network and now Roosevelt | Pipeline, I ask about the role of ‘local.’ While Obama demanded that Congress send him a bill in the rare instances where the two parties agree, his signature produces little in terms of outcome. It is rather through the process of implementation, in the gateways of local communities, that citizens will feel the benefits, and drawbacks, of legislative action.

The vision that President Obama laid out for his re-election is premised on a second term, but it will be a hard fight. The President must win over independent voters, which requires him to maintain a moderate tone while rallying his base. However, the progressive community must ask ourselves a fundamental question: Will he achieve this vision in four more years? The answer is probably not. 

Our system of government was not designed to enable rapid sweeping changes. Will this reality alter our vote? It may result in an enthusiasm gap, as those disillusioned with his first term fail to go to the polls at all. Perhaps instead, we should look to local state houses and city councils. Earlier this year at a campaign event, Elizabeth Warren posited a powerful progressive narrative of a shared society: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his/her own. Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea - God Bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of it and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” Therefore, do we, as good progressives, turn our back on all the work we have left to do? Work, which in reality we believe we should all take part in?

Political gridlock is often framed in ideological terms; the big versus small government narrative is a long-standing tradition in American politics. The debate over the role of the federal government taints, and sometimes even hijacks, sound public policy. Local policy can be more solution-driven as mayors and local officials work desperately to balance budgets and provide for their constituencies. President Obama likened himself to President Abraham Lincoln with regards to the essential function of government: “Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.” While there are implications for public policy, there is a second takeaway in this vision. Citizens can, and do, govern through various forms of democratic participation, but maybe people can do better when it comes to governance, especially local governance.

Years ago, founders of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network recognized the value of young people’s ideas. In local communities and cities across the country, students are engaging in the process of governing, far from the reaches of overly politicized national policy debates. Members of the Roosevelt | Pipeline, which include some former Campus Network members, remain committed to sound public policy for all Americans. There are 42 men in our history who understand the realities of what it is to be the Commander-in-Chief; the President cannot govern in our system in the same way he must campaign to win office. We need a new generation of practitioners to support President Obama’s vision for the long-term, for unlike the president, we do not (yet) have constituencies. Our only real accountability is to each other and how we rise to meet the challenges ahead.

To conclude: Yes, I want smarter and more effective government, but not just in the halls of Congress. Yes, I see our destiny as stitched together, but what does that mean for communities across America? Yes, the State of the Union is not intended to cover these details, but citizens can question, design, and implement vision where it counts. While I was relieved to see President Obama’s energy and vision earlier this week, political realities loom large as he balances his job and the campaign. In the months ahead, we will be reminded how much is at stake. While the campaign heats up around us, the governing goes on; it can and should be our business. Let’s get to work.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons