Change is tougher than hope
On the campaign trail, Barack Obama electrified Americans with his bold call to transform despair into hope, and voters elected him in a landslide. Democratic candidates for Congress rode his broad coattails to large majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate that his party hadn't held in a generation. The stage was set to transform hope into change, for jobs, health care, climate change and many other fundamental challenges.
A year into the Obama administration, with giant obstacles blocking those important changes, many Americans feel more frustrated than hopeful. Following careful analysis, the Institute for Policy Studies -- which I lead -- gives Obama a "C-minus" grade for his first year in office. But his administration can learn from these obstacles to guide the country toward positive change in 2010.
The Wall Street-driven economic meltdown that started in the waning months of the 2008 campaign is the biggest challenge to the change Obama campaigned on. More than 8 million Americans have lost their jobs since the crisis began, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Try feeling hopeful without a job.
Obama added to his woes right from the start by selecting a Cabinet which, with only a few exceptions, didn't believe in bold change. Take Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. The Associated Press obtained Geithner's schedule last October and learned that he spent hours on the phone daily with Wall Street barons, instead of with the small entrepreneurs and workers who form the backbone of this economy.
Change would be hard for anyone to achieve as long as Washington is virtually owned by Wall Street bankers and giant corporations. Too many members of Congress owe their elections to that largess. Take this revealing example: Obama agreed to cut wasteful military spending on extraneous items such as a new fleet of presidential helicopters. Members of Congress, worried about job loss and corporate anger, put some of the money back in to keep the program alive.
If we look at the three major battles of 2009, corporate interests blocked significant change on all of them. Wall Street stymied any reform that would regulate the Wall Street casino that brought our economy to the brink. Now its lobbyists are fighting tooth and nail against a consumer financial protection agency that would safeguard ordinary people against predatory lending.
On health care, the majority wants all Americans covered -- and they want some version of a government health plan to compete with private plans. It does look like the Obama administration will win some small but important health-care reforms, but they will fall short of where the majority wants to go.
And bills that would address climate change by making major U.S. companies pollute less were watered down. None have become law yet.
The Obama administration nevertheless did take a few strong steps in the right direction. Just three weeks into office, Obama orchestrated the largest economic recovery spending bill in history. It sent hundreds of billions of dollars into new jobs and key safety-net programs. Much of that money has kept Americans from slipping through the cracks, with a massive expansion of food stamps and a big increase in unemployment benefits.
Obama should think about how some of his predecessors successfully channeled public anger into meaningful change at the top. Many of the social protections that have helped working people, the elderly, and people of color in this country were passed in the mid-1930s under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or during the mid-1960s under Lyndon B. Johnson. In both cases, well-organized Americans created strong pressure that overcame entrenched interests to win change.
In Obama's first year, the Americans who mobilized to elect him largely stayed home. Millions did so because they are out of work and devoid of hope. Others thought change would come easily. For the change this nation desperately needs -- a transition from a Wall Street casino to a new economy that fulfills people's needs -- Americans must get off their couches and 2010 and come together to confront corporate interests.
John Cavanagh is the director of the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank that transforms ideas into action for peace, justice and the environment and recently released the new report "Barely Making the G: Obama's First Year."