In 2009, President Obama took office with sky-high approval ratings. Democrats held 60 seats in the US Senate and a sizable majority in the House of Representatives.
They used that power to try to solve one of the most intractable problems in American life — making health care more accessible and affordable. But in doing so, Democratic senators spent months reaching across the aisle, carefully constructing a reform package that they hoped might hold bipartisan appeal. In other words, Democrats chose to pursue a highly ambitious goal with an aggressively traditional process.
It almost prevented the Affordable Care Act from reaching President Obama’s desk.
In 2021, we have neither the legislative margins nor the luxury of time to adopt a process that falls short of making lives better for American families as soon as we can.
The Biden Administration knows the lesson of 2009. Many of them lived it. And as a movement, progressives have been preparing for this window of time — and the possibility it represents — for much of the last two years.
Right now, organizers are making plans to push Democratic lawmakers to achieve whatever we can to defeat the pandemic, to tackle the climate crisis, to restore the economy and reduce inequality, to reckon with white supremacy, and to reinforce the foundation of our democracy. As well they should. The challenges we face demand nothing less.
But it’s not enough to push. There is another lesson from 2009 that we should internalize as well.
As the Affordable Care Act took shape, conservatives mobilized in force to try to block the emerging bill. And after Congress recessed in the summer, every Democratic lawmaker was confronted with the face of that opposition at town halls and constituent meetings back home in their districts. The press covered those interactions live.
For a time, progressives were caught flat-footed. For weeks, there was no countervailing force to represent the popular support for the Affordable Care Act. And the bill’s popularity began to fall.
An equivalent absence can’t happen this time.
Just as Democratic lawmakers need to be bold, activists need to stand by them when they demonstrate political courage. There will be senators who take tough votes because important bills will fail without their support. There will be members of the House who risk reelection to advance key pieces of legislation.
As this year unfolds, organizers need to make sure that the case for progress has as much visible support as the inevitable Republican outcry in opposition. When conservatives whip up a call-in campaign or pack a tele-town hall, we need to make sure lawmakers hear from our side in equal measure. When lawmakers put their careers on the line, grassroots donors should step up to make sure their campaigns have the resources they need to survive the coming election.
“Democracy is precious,” President Biden said at his inauguration. “Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
Whether that sentiment holds true on Inauguration Day in 2025 may come down to whether progressives do all we can to stand together while we control the White House and Congress.
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