Obama critics decry his failure to use the presidential bully pulpit, compared to its use by Franklin Roosevelt. Apart from it not being Obama’s style, there are two additional problems with this idea. It would be very easy for the Right to portray him as a militant black—making him a black president rather than a president who is black. Obama has assiduously cultivated the latter persona. But more important, FDR had rivals who filled the bully pulpit role and claimed the allegiance of significant constituencies, or could at least threaten to gain them: CIO President John L. Lewis, whose industrial union movement had mushroomed in the 1930s to over three million members; conservative populist radio priest Father Charles Coughlin; African-American leader A. Philip Randolph; senior citizen hero Dr. Francis Townsend; Louisiana populist Governor Huey Long; and perennial socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas. Each of them could mobilize millions of people.
When FDR had to be pressured from his left, there was someone there to do it. That’s a key element of Von Hoffman’s point: if Roosevelt said to John L. Lewis, “go out and make me do it,” Lewis and the industrial union movement could do it—just as the Deep South civil rights movement could keep the heat on John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. President Lincoln met with African-American former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the Radical Republicans of his own party. With whom would Obama meet today? Who can deliver Democratic constituencies today? The heart of the progressive problem is that the answer is, “no one.”
Blaming the money that is spent to defeat peace and justice candidates who run on progressive issues isn’t an adequate response. We know that kind of money is going to be spent against progressives. That’s a given. Water is wet and rocks are hard. If there isn’t enough grassroots organization behind a peace and justice candidacy to counter the money, then the campaign shouldn’t be run in the first place.
As we know, the Republican sweep knocked both progressives and Blue Dogs out of Congress, including Russ Feingold in what is often a progressive state. Did any third-party, progressive candidates win? Not that I’m aware of. Did any anti-incumbent Blue Dog nominees win Democratic primaries in June, then get elected in November? Not that I’m aware of. Did any new peace and justice congressional candidate get elected? Not that I’m aware of. And even if there are one or two, the likelihood is that the candidate was running against a Tea Party crazy—against whom any Democrat would have won.
We are in a period in which we have to build toward national victories. That building takes place primarily in local campaigns. It’s a long process, not a short one.
Update: In the wake of Obama's State of the Union, here is one very good place to begin, with Nicholas Ruiz:
if Obama is in need of some regulations to reasonably review, Democrats can help. For example, let’s review the stifling minimum wage regulation. The minimum wage, unreasonably and unrealistically, remains untethered to the consumer price index. Therefore, it almost never goes up. But market prices sure do. And that’s why the buying power of the average American today pales in comparison to the buying power senior citizens had when they were young. Deregulate the minimum wage by tethering it to the market via the consumer price index. Republicans, whose charms and favor Obama seems too eager to court, will be happy, too: it has the word ‘market’ in it.