Want a progressive agenda implemented? "Make me do it" is the presidential reply. That not only applies to President Obama, who actually once said words to that effect, it also applies to every President we are likely to ever see elected in our lifetimes. It is a very long hard climb to reach the presidency and whoever gets there arrives accompanied by a truck load of expensive I.O.U.s. We have a political system that is obscenely skewed by money, but even if money wasn't as disproportionately transcendent in American politics as it is, the presidency is an inherently conservative institution. The federal government, and the cumulative interests that it has served for generations, has tremendous inertia to remain on track, on the track it now is running on. It perpetuates the status quo, which means the people who are getting what they want from the current societal order occupy the drivers seat by default.
The only time I half expected anything remotely resembling revolutionary changes flowing top down from the President to the people was during that brief shining moment when it looked like RFK would become the next President of the United States But those were extraordinary times and Bobby was an extraordinary person whose character was forged in searing fires during those extraordinary times. We don't know how much he could have accomplished, but even he would have needed to lean heavily on the support he knew he could summon from a breathtaking broad spectrum of socially engaged grass roots backers.
For every degree left of center that Barack Obama navigates he does so by breaking through thick political pack ice, and it always takes its toll, even when it shatters. Some women, and some men, are made of steel more hardened than the norm, and they may confront some storms as President others would shy away from, but they too ultimately have to pick their fights in order to remain viable. That is why I am not overly disheartened by the likelihood of Hillary Clinton becoming the Democratic candidate for President rather than someone overtly more progressive. In the end it is less about the candidate and more about us.
In the binary political world of American politics, where the cumulative forces of every national special interest conceivable places its chips on either black or red in each national election, the field of political combat starts off tightly confined. The lines are drawn just short of the extreme right on one side of the field, and narrowly left of center at the other. In that binary world, at the national level, our team is the one that will at least occasionally acknowledge the legitimacy of occupying any ground lying left of center. How hard they will fight for that ground is a different story. Pragmatic considerations usually pull toward the center; not just to the center of an abstract political spectrum where actual socialism remains a theoretically valid option, but to the well worn center of our current political playing field with its inherent conservative bias.
Whatever President we elect can move beyond the traditionally defined political action boundaries, but only on rare occasions, and only when there is a strong groundswell of popular support pushing hard for that line to be crossed. The lines themselves may be subject to change, but causing a profound shift of that order is a much more daunting challenge than engineering an occasional successful excursion across currently recognized political boundaries. It is our continuing struggle and ultimate responsibility to open up the political playing field, so that a more populist vision of America can compete and ultimately prevail. The real initiative for that will never come from the man or woman we manage to elect as President. We have to become the force that must be reckoned with, one able to force him or her to move toward our agenda before that can happen. We can't place all of our eggs in any presidential basket, no matter how inspirational on one hand, or disillusioning on the other, a leader may ultimately turn out to be.
We were denied the opportunity to elect Bobby Kennedy President in 1968. But the man who ended up winning the White House in that year, Richard Nixon, still ended up creating the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration while he was in office. The times demanded it; because we seized the time.
A post note on edit: Thank you to philipmerrill for clarifying in a comment below that Barack Obama made his "make me do it" remark in the context of retelling when and why FDR shared that pronouncement first.