Many of these policies were enacted, oddly enough, during the Obama administration’s first two years with the aid of a Democratic Congress. Obama’s version of trickle-down economics assumed that once failing banks and Wall Street were rescued, profits would flow down to mainstream via private investment. Instead, the rich have largely been sitting on their cash, a reality the president realized too late. Correcting this error at the policy level would require congressional action. That’s a scenario that works only if the Democrats regain control of the House.
America faces enormous fiscal, social, legal and political challenges. The recent government shutdown illustrated the fragility of our democracy, especially when faced with elected leaders whose sole ambition is to destroy the underpinnings of the poor.
Immigration reform, economic recovery for the working and middle class and anti-poverty efforts should be at the core of the president’s second-term agenda. Obama should make it clear to the American people that in order to pass much-needed progressive legislation, he needs their help, not just in the next midterm election but through active participation in the nation’s civic life.
We witnessed examples of such participation this past summer in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case. Then, the sheer weight of national protests over the George Zimmerman acquittal forced Obama to candidly speak out about race in America. Obama should do no less now that the stakes, for all Americans, have been raised so high.
The president must outline a vision of American democracy and national renewal that takes us beyond the confines of endless political combat with Republican jihadists in Congress. These disputes narrow the terrain of our vision and cheapen not only our politics but our very lives.
Now is the time for Obama to use his immense oratorical gifts to craft a new and enduring narrative of American democratic progress in the 21st century. The story he shares must highlight the multiracial, multiethnic and multigenerational makeup of American society. In doing so, Obama has the chance to remind Americans why the New Deal and Great Society programs are more than mere historical artifacts, but represent the very heart of our nation’s democracy.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.