Maintaining Momentum As The Wave of Reform Recedes

It hasn’t been just the biting cold and the encroaching night that has made this December depressing.  The collapse of the Senate’s version of Health Reform into an insurance and drug industry subsidy program, the failure to reach agreement on a climate recovery treaty in Copenhagen, the continued war in Iraq and the announced escalation in Afghanistan….for many of us, these developments have eliminated our little remaining hope that the Obama election would create deeply transformative change – in transportation or anything else.

It’s true that each of these disappointments includes many incremental improvements and sometimes creates a platform for future progress.  Simply having an African-American as President is culturally transformative and well worth the effort of his election.  But we no longer seem to have enough momentum to push through the structural changes we anticipated.  This is important both for what it teaches us about politics and how we have to adjust our strategies going forward.

The Obama Administration is not the Bush/Cheney monstrosity, nor the McCain/Palin embarrassment.  As a result, down in the trenches of everyday administrative activity thousands of Obama-appointed smart, competent progressives are significantly improving thousands of particular policies and procedures.  Some of the mid- to low-level changes that Obama’s people are doing will remain in place no matter who wins the next election – as did some of the changes done by previous staffs both Republican and Democratic.  But most of it is vulnerable to easy reversal or simple nonobservance by a subsequent Administration.

Permanent changes, deeply transformative changes, come from a shift in institutional power.  The Great Depression opened the door for the New Deal by thoroughly discrediting the old elites and their institutional sources of power, the banks and businesses, at both the national and local levels.  They had catastrophically failed; people were desperate.   But President Roosevelt was able to enact the New Deal happen because of the emerging power of urban (mostly ethnic based) political machines and industrial unions.  These new institutions mobilized key sectors of the population, earning their loyalty by meeting people’s material needs and expressing their political desires.

During the Bush years, Liberals put everything they had into building a movement to oppose unilateral militarism, environmental despoiling, constitutional violations, cultural homophobia, and increasing inequality.  Pioneering use of the new social media, inheriting the deeply American hopefulness of the civil rights movement, building on youth cultures’ embracing of multi-cultural celebrities, and taking advantage of the huge opening made by the fiscal crises created by the deregulation championed by Republican leaders – a giant wave of hope carried Obama into the White House.

But that wave was not based on new sources of institutional power.  It created no organizations that both organized and meet the core needs of previously unserved populations.  One of the biggest of the anti-Bush groups, MoveOn.org, was (and is) a virtual organization – in fact, not even an organization but a network of individuals.  And it is a protest movement; it grew along with the growth of anger and then hope.  Despite the support of many advocacy groups with clear agendas, the Obama campaign was primarily united by its opposition to the right-wing crazies.  It spent itself on the election, and once the inauguration happened, the wave of hope dissolved back into the huge number of non-affiliated individuals that it mainly was.

The dribbling away of the Obama wave had another cause.  Although FDR was never a radical, he dealt with a persistent and systemic economic crisis by supporting some of his staff’s increasingly radical ideas.   Roosevelt never wanted to end capitalism.  But he understood that it had to be saved from itself, it had to be restructured and regulated and forced to act in more socially responsible ways — and that the government was the only institution with the power and legitimacy to do it.  By reducing the power of the financial backbone of the old order (at least temporarily), the New Deal created the political momentum that allowed the rest of the reform agenda to be implemented

When Obama took office the world economy seemed to be in free-fall and there was an opening to demand significant restructuring of the failing financial giants.  However, Obama was even less of a radical and more of an independent operator than FDR –partly because there was no new institutional power capable of demanding that their constituents needs be met.  To deal with the fiscal crisis, Obama relied on representatives of the finance industry.  And their priority was saving what existed as it existed – banks, hedge funds, investment firms, and the rest.  So the first move of the new Administration was not to change the system but to bail it out.

Unfortunately, the bailout seems to have worked.  Not that prosperity has returned or that unemployment is no longer increasing.  It’s just that the big players are not longer in immediate danger.  Sure, the newspapers are full of stories about new regulations – but the financiers have been able to beat back nearly every meaningful reform.  Recent headlines announce that it is the Republicans who will be writing the fine print on the new “financial reform” legislation.  And now the banks are starting to pay back the bailout in order to give themselves their regular multi-million dollar bonuses again.

Worst of all, by allowing the status quo elites to climb back into control, the President lost the momentum needed to make significant reform in other areas. Despite Obama’s tactical brilliance at making the best of his decreasing leverage, all the oppositional forces got a chance to regroup.  And the more they grained strength, the more the new Administration had to compromise, the more the election momentum dissipated, and the less ability the Obama forces had to push for their most hopeful visions either at home or abroad.  So Copenhagen doesn’t end with a climate recover treaty.  So the health reform effort is blackmailed by every Senator with a vested interest.  So Obama’s poll ratings keep dropping and his influence waning.

This sad tale means that the fight to significantly reorient the new transportation funding bill towards trains, trolleys, bikes, and other less highway- or car-centric investments will not be easy.  The good news is that mayors have come to agree with city planners, public health and environmental advocates that revitalizing cities – both the business and residential districts – requires creating more people-friendly spaces that encourages walking, cycling, and slower moving or even fewer cars.  The other good news is that people remember the recent surge in fuel costs, and that the problems of the American automobile industry means it no longer has its former clout.  The bad news is that the construction and oil industries are blindly wedded to the status quo and will use all their enormous wealth and influence to keep the concrete flowing.

Who will prevail?  Neither history nor recent trends are encouraging.  But it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise that Representative Blumenauer lost his attempt to push through transportation reform as part of the initial wave of Obama changes.  The Administration’s squandering of that initial wave might have left us with an empty shell that was labeled reform but contained little or nothing new.

This is a depressing analysis that glosses over many positive aspects of what the Obama wave has made possible.  Not only it is possible that this resourceful President may find ways to regain the offensive, to use what has been accomplished as a stepping stone rather than a dragging anchor, the balance of power around transportation issues is still evolving.  We have some months and maybe even more to rebuild our momentum.  Groups like Transportation for America (t4a.org) are playing a key roll as a national facilitator and umbrella under which a broad alliance can converge.  But local groups will have to get involved – finding ways to connect their particular issues to the national debate.  At stake is the chance to create another kind of long-lasting, almost permanent, change – by influencing the type of transportation infrastructure that gets built, and that will last (as did our current roads) for several generations to come.

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