Franklin Roosevelt would not be a liberal hero if not for the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt wouldn’t even have tried to be a liberal hero if not for the Great Depression. Or, to put it another way, Roosevelt could not have become a liberal hero if he had not come in in a situation where the opposition party had utterly failed and discredited themselves and in which his party had scored successive crushing electoral victories.

I made arguments of this type all year long to demonstrate that Barack Obama’s degree of progressivism would be much less dependent on the rhetoric he used during a campaign than on the conditions he found himself in once he took office. I knew our economy was rocky and that we were experiencing the popping of the housing bubble, but I didn’t anticipate the sudden meltdown in September. I felt the best hope for progressivism lay in the strongest possible defeat of Republicans in Congress. Our victories were sizable, but not quite as large as I had hoped. They left Obama just short of the kind of electoral mandate he would need to rush through any kind of legislation he wants.

But Obama didn’t just gain an electoral mandate. The economic crisis gave him another mandate. Like Roosevelt, Obama has a mandate to try anything that might work to create jobs and improve people’s economic security. In such a situation, the most important thing for Obama to do is to build a machine that can carry out his agenda, and to disarm any opponents that might still stand in his way. The solutions he will be offering on education, health care, infrastructure, financial regulation, energy, and the environment, are solutions that Democrats either failed to enact or stopped trying to enact in the 1990’s. His urban agenda is like nothing seriously proposed since Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert Kennedy.

It’s somewhat frustrating to see that many of the people that will be tasked with carrying out this agenda are not the people that kept their faith in these progressive principles during the lean times. But, think about it. A lot of former New Democrats are now on board with a distinctly liberal agenda. Part of this is because conditions changed. The Republicans are no longer riding high…they no longer have a cash advantage. But part of it is that we’re in a crisis and Obama has strong leadership qualities.

The whole country has moved to the left. And a lot of left-leaning legislation is going to pass and pass very quickly. If we’re lucky, we’re entering the early stages of a second New Deal era, with an extended period of liberal consensus. But this isn’t some left-wing paradise. No one is talking seriously about prison reform or the drug war. Our foreign policy is still expensive, risky, and prone to moral error. Greedheads still govern our culture and impoverish our minds. But this is about as good as it was going to get this year. And rhetoric had nothing to do with it.

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