Any day now, some very prominent Democrats will get down to the business of helping to unite the party behind likely nominee Hillary Clinton. One of them will be President Barack Obama, who is popular among young Democrats and thus well positioned to argue to Bernie Sanders supporters that it in their interests — and the interests of the larger Sanders movement — to support Clinton.
The President is set to give a speech at Rutgers University next week, at which (given the audience) he might begin to lay out this case. And in an interview with The Daily Targum, a student paper at Rutgers, he offered a long monologue that is perhaps a preview of the bigger argument he’ll make.
Notably, Obama called on people not to “oversimplify” how change is achieved, and argued that “incremental changes” via “consensus building” can add up to meaningful progress. Asked about the fact that many Americans who are worried about stagnant wages, the shrinking middle class, and rising inequality are turning to Bernie Sanders, the President answered:
“It is absolutely true that there are a lot of folks who still are struggling out there, and we can’t minimize that. There (are) trends that have been taking place over the last 20 (or) 30 years that have dampened wage growth, that have made it tougher for folks to save for retirement or for their kids’ college education…
“More needs to be done there. And some of the steps that we’ve taken are going to pay off over the course of the next 20 years. There are things like raising the federal minimum wage or rebuilding our infrastructure — that would put people back to work right away and that would accelerate growth….
“If we are changing just a few laws that make it easier, for example, for workers to organize, that close corporate tax loopholes or tax loopholes used by wealthy individuals so that they’re not paying their fair share — if we take that money and make sure that we’re investing in the kinds of things that make an economy grow, if we ensure that we’ve got a healthcare system that is affordable and accessible for all people, then I’m confident that America’s best days are still ahead….
“We have to make sure we also recognize this is a big country, and there’s very rarely a single set of silver bullets out there that would immediately solve all of these problems. We’re part of an interconnected global economy now, and there’s no going back from that. It’s important for us to not oversimplify how we’re going to bring about the kind of change we need.
“We’ve got to also recognize that, in a democracy like this, it’s not going to happen overnight. We have to make incremental changes where we can, and everyone once in a while you’ll get a breakthrough and make the kind of big changes that are necessary. That consensus building is important because that’s historically how change has happened in America. Those are the kinds of things that I’ll be talking about at the commencement.”
This is both a subtle rebuke to Sanders’s call for a revolution and a preview of the argument he’ll likely make in urging his supporters to get behind Clinton. Obama’s warning against oversimplification is an implicit criticism of Sanders’s suggestion that liberating lawmakers from the grip of plutocratic money and rallying millions to storm the ramparts of Congress would compel the sort of far reaching, transformative social democratic reforms that Sanders envisions — single payer, free public college, enormously ambitious action on to combat climate change.
More to the point, though, Obama is previewing an argument he’ll likely make against allowing unrealistic assessments of what is possible to morph into political disillusionment. Here Obama makes the case that change has historically been won in a long, hard, incremental slog, and that the big breakthroughs are historically very rare. There is a lot to this: throughout the progressive era, gains in the areas of economic regulation, the minimum wage, and the graduated income tax proceeded fitfully and with great difficulty, suffering big setbacks in the courts. It took decades until a horrific depression and landslide electoral wins for Democrats helped lead to the big New Deal sea changes, which included the Supreme Court upholding (among other things) wage floors, unemployment insurance and social insurance for the elderly. Yet even Social Security had to be subsequently expanded many years later to cover millions who’d been excluded from it.
Likewise, Medicare was only achieved more than 15 years after President Harry Truman called for universal health care in 1949, and its core guarantee of government health care for the elderly actually represented a scaling back of reformers’ goals, disappointing many liberals who lamented that it only reached a segment of the population.
As the above remarks indicate, Obama will likely make the case against being dismissive of the incremental changes that Hillary Clinton has promised to pursue. He’ll argue for the value in achieving a $12 minimum wage (and $15 in certain localities); continuing to build on Obamacare (though Clinton should be pressed on how she’d do this); investing more in infrastructure (even if it isn’t as much as Sanders would invest); and tax reform that makes the system marginally more progressive. Also, Clinton would seek to implement the Paris climate deal, while a Republican president would pull the U.S. out of it.
To be clear, none of this is to denigrate Bernie Sanders’s ambitions. Indeed, I hope that Obama will make a genuine effort to acknowledge the force of Sanders’s big argument — his insistence that the constraints of our political system, however real the obstacles they pose, ultimately should not cause us to scale back our idealized vision of a far more fair economy and just society. I also hope he’ll make the case to Sanders’s supporters that they have an important role to play in trying to pull Clinton and the Democratic Party towards them on their issues and in trying to erect a bulwark in Congress against any caves to regressive centrist deal-making. If the goal is to prevent disillusionment from setting in, those might serve as two key pieces of the argument.