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Obama Should Create a Third Party

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Obama Should Create a Third Party

Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was an insurgent victory amidst the stalemate in American politics. He ran as an agent of change and a challenge to the establishment in both the Democratic and Republican parties. He promised a new pragmatism that would replace partisanship with intelligent and effective responses to complex problems. Obama’s incredibly broad appeal, especially among young people, came from his insurgent qualities. His race, his professional background, and his inspiring rhetoric combined to make him appear as a compelling outsider who would reform the tired politics-as-usual in Washington D.C.

Since he assumed the presidency in January 2009 Obama has lost his insurgent appeal. This is not because of a change of heart. Despite his repeated efforts to tackle complex problems (from health care to deficit reduction), the two party system in Congress has blocked all productive actions. Democrats have consistently pushed for more spending, more regulation, and more protection of special interests. Republicans have been equally stubborn in their efforts to strip government power, encourage free markets, and enforce moral strictures in society.

The two parties have stuck to their inherited positions, even though they do not match the serious problems of our present era. Democrats and Republicans have forced the president to dumb down his creative policy efforts for the sake of stale and ultimately ineffective compromises on spending, or an acceptance of the status quo for health care and government entitlements. The two party system in Congress has suffocated the possibilities for insurgent reform that Obama’s election initially breathed into American politics.

Pragmatism needs new oxygen in Washington, and it will only come from a new political party. Citizens committed to creative problem solving, experimental policies, and even a little sacrifice need an organization that will bring their voices into the mainstream. They need a fund-raising body to challenge the Democratic and Republican money machines. Most of all, they need a powerful national leader – someone whom opponents cannot ignore or dismiss, someone to mobilize a broad following.

The history of American politics is filled with national insurgent leaders, many of whom came to prominence during moments of partisan stalemate and ineffectiveness – moments precisely like our own. Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, in particular, transformed the political structure of American society by forcing the dominant parties to address new issues. They created new political organizations that energized debate, increased public participation, and unleashed years of productive legislative work. These men abandoned partisanship for a populist focus on the national interest.

President Obama can do the same. Despite his legislative setbacks, his popularity remains very high. In addition, his campaign vision of pragmatic change is as compelling as ever. He can only capitalize on this by decisively abandoning the partisan structure that is holding him back. Obama must stop speaking as a “Democrat,” and address himself to the nation as the “Pragmatist” that he is. In their best moments, Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt did the same.

Now is the perfect time for Obama to drop this political bomb. Members of Congress are preparing for the November 2010 elections at a moment when their standing in the eyes of the American public is barely better than that of convicted felons. Voters are clearly fed up with the two-party system and they are looking for an alternative. No one in either party, other than the president, has shown an ability to mobilize this pervasive sentiment. The Tea Party Movement has drawn on public anger, but it also lacks a compelling national leader.

Obama should follow Jackson and Roosevelt’s script. He should call on all members of Congress to declare whether or not they are willing to join him in embracing a new Pragmatism that requires three things. First, they must pledge that it is their collective responsibility to address the overwhelming national challenges confronting our country – the ballooning deficit, the health care crisis, and the insolvency of Social Security, Medicare, and other government entitlements. Second, they should resign from their Democratic and Republican party posts and join together in new committees designed to bridge differences, not sharpen them. Third, the president should call on all members of Congress to join him at the White House to announce their Pragmatic movement in a major press conference. Those who do not attend will display their commitment to partisanship above country.

A third party movement has risks, of course. Members of Congress will lose some of the campaign funding they count on from their parties. The president and his advisors will not be able to exploit the traditional partisan channels for introducing legislation and disciplining House and Senate votes. These two mainstays of the two party system are precisely the impediments to effective governance. They seem permanent because they serve short-term political purposes, not the national interest.

The risks for Obama in introducing a third party are, in fact, very low. He will re-energize his popular appeal as an insurgent, he will raise money and support (as he did during his presidential campaign) along these lines, and he will shame members of Congress and other politicians into thinking beyond their party. The president has the power to breakthrough our political stalemate by breaking down the Republicans and the Democrats.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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  1. Refinance February 25, 2010

    Lerman, it is a great post thanks for writing it!

  2. Frederick Gagnon February 26, 2010

    Thanks for this post!

    I tend to agree with James Fallows, who notes the following in a recent article about “How Can America Rise Again”: “A viable third party? Attractive in theory. But 150 years of failed attempts by formidable campaigners, ranging from Robert LaFollette to Ross Perot, suggest how unlikely this is.”

    That being said, I certainly agree with you when you say something has to happen with this (broken) system in Washington. I also agree that Obama has the potential to change the system. However, I am not sure he will ever have the “audacity” to “drop” such a “political bomb.” But that’d be quite an event! A real “transformative” action!

  3. Andy Stravers February 26, 2010

    Thanks for the post, Professor Suri! I certainly agree that a viable third party is absolutely essential at this point in American history.

    However, I do have a couple of questions related to the viability of President Obama as the head of a new third party. First, isn’t his image as an insurgent largely an illusion? In “Game Change,” Mark Halperin and John Heilemann argue that Obama was actually the candidate of the Democratic establishment, due to the pleas to run for President that he received from a powerful individual like Harry Reid. Wouldn’t a lot of political retribution likely occur from powerful people who shifted the weight of the Democratic Party behind Obama? This could possibly destroy a third party at the outset or simply lead to more gridlock.

    Second is a question of ideology. In my opinion, a viable third party would have to either bridge the current ideological divide between the two parties or somehow “rise above” it. It seems to me that President Obama has generally not strayed from a rather generic liberal Democratic ideology. It seems that you might disagree with that. If so, what sorts of issues might be used as bridges? Philosophical divisions often lead the parties to take completely opposite positions on many of the key issues of our day.

  4. Jeremi Suri February 26, 2010

    Thanks, Andy. You ask some crucial and important questions. I will try to answer them as best I can. These are great points for continued discussion.

    As you say, Obama’s presidential campaign did have strong support from certain elements of the Democratic Party establishment, especially Harry Reid. Nonetheless, Hilary Clinton was the “insider” candidate — the one with the money, the connections,and mobilized base of Democratic Party faithful. Obama won the nomination and the election by mobilizing people who did not consider themselves Democratic “insiders.” Only late in the game did the members of the Democratic establishment jump on the Obama bandwagon. This is the classic dynamic for an insurgent within a party facing a presumptive establishment figure, like Hilary Clinton.

    Obama is certainly not an ideologue and you are correct to observe that he has not announced strong radical positions on basic policy issues. He has not, however, supported mainstream Democratic positions on fiscal policy, defense, or health care either. To my mind, Obama has sought to build bridges around policies that support a more active federal government, but one that is fiscally responsible and committed to building a more sustainable productive economy. That is a very pragmatic position that could, I think, bridge the party stalemate and a create something like a third party movement. If nothing else, Obama’s efforts in this direction would shake up the Democratic and Republican parties and give his reform agenda some new energy.

  5. Taylor C. March 22, 2010

    Professor Suri,

    In the fall of 2008 I took your class on the history of American Foreign Relations, 1901 – present and enjoy following your blog posts on the numerous sites to which you contribute. I found this post particularly moving. It seems to be a very appropriate call to arms in an era of hyper-partisanship. I fondly remember reveling on the streets of Madison on the night of November 4th not because it was a victory for Democrats but because it was a victory for diplomacy and pragmatism. It seems that idealism, on both sides of the aisle, has found a way to suppress what on that night was a palpable change.

    You make a strong case that Obama could successfully resurrect this change and call upon members of the US Congress to join him in putting idealism aside with a new “Pragmatist” party. I would, however, suggest that at a time when the media is so unapologetically polarized it would be difficult to avoid this movement being seen as a publicity strategy. This seems even more likely after the passing of the Senate HR bill in the House without a single GOP vote.

    I believe a bottom up approach, if only as a seed, would be the best way to develop this necessary movement. If a “Pragmatist” party could prove itself successful in a relatively moderate and politically diverse state such as Wisconsin, political leaders may be willing to jump on the bandwagon. This would be especially true if moderate Democrats and Republicans are willing to nurture the growth of such a party and offically jump on once the movement has developed. The Tea Party was able to create an arguably grassroots movement with the help of numerous Republicans. If a polarizing and sometimes hateful (not to suggest that all Tea Partiers are radicals) movement such as the Tea Party can rally such a base, imagine what a well nurtured, moderate movement could do. And who should start this movement? Who better than the always pragmatic Jeremi Suri?

    I would suggest that you run for a House position as a “Pragmatist” and bring this party to realization. Your colleague John Sharpless ran a very competitive campaign against incumbent Tammy Baldwin on a rather moderate ticket. At this time Americans are looking for a pragmatist, someone willing to stand up against increasingly polarized idealism. You seem to fit that bill nicely. If you did run, you could be sure that many of your former students would drop everything to see you succeed, me included.

  6. Richard Berger July 12, 2011

    The American Pragmatist Party is based on the concept of identifying political candidates of other political parties and supporting them, rather than running candidates of its own. There are plenty of smart people out there in both parties and plenty who are driven by the concept of public service. The trick is to get them elected instead of the ones that owe favors to their campaign contributors…

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