The Need for Progressive Realism

Obama, shown here shaking hands with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), has approached his presidency with an orientation toward compromise. “Conciliation was not merely his default mode,” Gary Dorrien writes. “It was his chief operating mode.” Credit: Pete Souza/White House.

Yes, Obama was moderate, and still the lofty sounding rhetoric made us feel that change really was possible. Hope was in the air. With time, we didn’t so much argue about the policies of his administration, many of which seemed fair and forward-looking. Rather, we took issue with the unwillingness to fight, the folding of the hand before the cards were played, the untoward interest in compromise with those who sought his political demise, and the combination of heady discourse with reliance on advisers peddling conventional economic wisdom geared toward the rich.

Often, one side argued that the pressures and powers must be so rough—particularly the pressure to compromise with the demands of corporate capitalism and other entrenched interests—that the best one can do is what Obama was doing: articulate and appeal to the ideals that make us feel good about our moral selves yet minimize the deep structural economic divisions that shape American politics and American society. The other side took the position that the hesitancy, the frequent unwillingness to fight, was mostly a result of Obama’s temperament and character, and probably also life experiences, rather than the pervasive power and influence of private interests. In other words, our discussions often turn on the question of whether Obama would do more if he could, or whether Obama’s eagerness to compromise leads him away from a coherent analysis of the realities of American society, and thus blinds him to what could and really needs to be done.

In his article for Tikkun and at more length in his book The Obama Question, Gary Dorrien characterizes Obama as a “communitarian, mostly of a progressive-leaning type”—that is, one who sees American domestic life from a worldview focused on the common good and thus seeks commonalities, compromise, measured deliberation on common goals, and shared solutions in spite of real differences, even in a polarized political and economic climate. Here, Dorrien brings an important new explanatory element into this ongoing argument.

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