Message to Obama: Get to Work

Janice Baker, first applicant for coverage under Affordable Care Act, introduces President Obama. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Janice Baker, first applicant for coverage under Affordable Care Act, introduces President Obama. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

(The Root) — It is high time for President Obama to enjoy the spoils of his recent victory in the ongoing political war with the Republican Party. Now is the time for Obama to boldly assume the mantle of political leadership and offer a compelling vision of forward political progress capable of overcoming the manufactured political divisions created by his opponents, who are bent on eviscerating the social safety net. 


Of course, there are still many short- and long-term challenges that Obama and the nation will confront during the three years remaining in his presidency — not the least of which includes replicating the coalition that ended the recent fiscal crisis in order to pass a budget and raise the debt ceiling by early next year.

But the president cannot simply lead from crisis to crisis. Obama must now seize this opportunity to re-energize a second term that began with a stirring inaugural address placing social and economic justice as national priorities. The president has a singular opportunity to outline a broad and ambitious second-term agenda, one that should not be weighed down by the politics of the possible, but should look toward the political horizon for an expansive vision of American democracy.


One added bonus: With Republicans in Congress facing record-low approval ratings, Democrats now see an opportunity to upend the 2014 midterm elections from the preshutdown forecasts of Democratic defeats in the House and Senate.

The first order of business is to fix public access to the Affordable Care Act. The government website has been plagued with errors, which have made Obamacare's rollout a public relations disaster for the administration and emboldened critics quick to judge the entire legislation a failure. This latest setback forced Obama to defend the health care law in a Rose Garden ceremony on Tuesday, during which he acknowledged the frustrations of millions of Americans who have been unable to successfully access the website.

But the president has to do more than simply defend past legislation. He must go on the offensive by explaining why America, now more than ever, needs comprehensive action to create millions of new jobs, provide technical and job training to the unemployed and jump-start the economy by tackling long-delayed repair to our nation's decaying infrastructure. The latest jobs report confirms fears of chronic unemployment as America's new normal, with only 148,000 jobs added in September, and black unemployment doubling that of white Americans.

Simply put, the president needs to rediscover his mojo. The otherworldly confidence that allowed the 46-year-old junior senator from Illinois to defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries has, for too much of his presidency, gone missing in action. As a candidate running for president, Obama rightly dismissed the politics of "triangulation" and politically expedient compromises of the Clinton years. But President Obama recruited Clinton veterans to the leadership ranks of his economic team, and the long-term economic consequences of that decision have contributed to record wealth accumulation at the expense of the poor.


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. 

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.

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