Liberals have an obsession with the presidency. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt strode across the political arena like a colossus (albeit a colossus in a wheelchair), liberals have tended to equate success with electing one of their own to the White House. The New Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society—these are fondly remembered as the glorious, if brief, eras of liberal political history, times when the country seemed to leap forward to a better place, before conservative Republicans found ways to jerk it back again. It's an obsession that also expressed itself in pop culture: After George W. Bush took office, with a big assist from the Supreme Court, many liberals consoled themselves by cheering on Jed Bartlett as he outfoxed his right-wing opponents.
Now that there’s a 50-50 chance that Obama could actually lose, the obsession is saturated with anxiety. Nearly every liberal I know checks the polls every few hours and frets over each debate, as if the future of the republic depends on Obama winning a second term. (OK, I confess—I do it too.) But we should realize that merely electing, or re-electing a progressive president has never been how lasting reform occurs. A one-term Obama administration might be considered a failure—but it would be a failure that liberals would be partly responsible for.
Every chief executive who signed major pieces of liberal legislation benefitted from thinkers, organizers, strategists, and grassroots insurgents who did their most critical work without the aid of an electoral college majority. The Social Security Act culminated over two decades of planning by such brilliant advocates as Louis Brandeis and Frances Perkins—and pressure from a movement of angry old people led by a charismatic physician named Francis Townsend. Only after years of violent mass strikes, including general strikes in San Francisco and Minneapolis in 1934, did Congress pass the National Labor Relations Act. Once workers got federal protection for organizing unions, lawmakers hoped, they would no longer need to pursue that goal by bringing production to a halt.
The process of change which resulted in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s began during World War II when JFK was fighting in the Pacific, and LBJ was still a lowly congressman from Texas. The threat of a march on Washington forced FDR to open up good jobs in war plants to black workers. Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma was widely applauded for its definitive attack on official and cultural racism, and the NAACP increased its membership by a thousand percent. During the next decade, a Democratic convention passed its first civil rights plank, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that segregated schools violated the 14th Amendment, and the black citizens of Montgomery won the right to sit on any available seat in a city bus. By the time President Kennedy proposed a civil rights bill in the spring of 1963, the defenders of legalized white supremacy were already on the run.
When Obama swept into office in 2009, liberals had nurtured a few sprouts of reform. Well-funded LGBT activists had waged numerous spirited, if losing, campaigns for marriage equality and to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Immigrant rights organizers had staged big marches and secured assistance from Catholic bishops and enthusiastic support from the Latino media and community groups.
But, unlike in the 1930s and 1960s, this progressive president could not rely on surging liberal movements to help him advance his key legislative goals and to counter the powerful, and predictable, opposition of conservatives. Labor unions were struggling to stop decades of declining numbers and political clout, and advocates of universal health insurance had never been able to reach much beyond a passionate but small cohort of policy wonks. Obama certainly should have made a better case for his health care bill and for his American Jobs Act. But his task was a lot harder in the absence of vigorous pressure from a growing left.
Most conservatives, to their credit, have never shared the illusion that, without a president of their own, there is nothing much they can accomplish. In the 15 years after Barry Goldwater suffered one of the worst electoral drubbings in American history, right-wing activists slowly and methodically captured control of state parties outside the Northeast. At the same time, they launched new think-tanks, feisty publications, talk-shows, and direct mail firms, and forged an alliance between anti-union businesses, anti-tax crusaders, and anti-abortion churches. As president, Ronald Reagan could not enact all of their agenda. But what he did achieve was due, in large part, to the diligent preparatory work of his fellow “movement conservatives.”
Of course, a Romney victory will be depressing as hell. Every physically able liberal, every Democrat should be making phone calls and/or knocking on doors in a swing state between now and when the last polls close on November 6. But if Obama does end up losing, it will be as much due to the weakness of liberal movements as to any flaws in his message, style, or policies. The time to generate popular momentum behind the changes you desire is before the quadrennial circus dominates the media and your mind.
Michael Kazin’s most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.