Why Barack Obama Will Be a More Effective Liberal in His Second Term

Closer to the truth about the repeal effort was what Obama told an Univision forum while campaigning in September: "The most important lesson that I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside, you can only change it from the outside."

In fact, the progressive constituencies that successfully lobbied the White House in the past year-and-a-half worked outside strategies similar to the DADT repeal activists. Environmentalists by the thousands protested the White House regarding the Keystone XL Pipeline and managed to slow the approval for the project that promises to pipe some of the world's dirtiest fuel through the United States to the Gulf of Mexico. Immigration activists known as DREAMers interrupted Obama's speech at a National Council of La Raza event after he told them his administration did not have the authority to stop deportations. Reproductive-rights advocates seized on the Komen Foundation's disastrous decision to cut its Planned Parenthood funding to send a message that an army of women (i.e. voters) were tired of having their health-care options held hostage.

Certainly, as Grunwald suggests, the president has used his executive authority over the past two years to highlight the "do-nothing" Congress as well as bypass it on the road to helping middle-class Americans. Among other things, he has provided relief to (some) homeowners overburdened by their debt load and (some) college graduates saddled with student loans, and he has tried to create jobs by clearing the path to nearly $500 million in federal funding for infrastructure projects.

But Obama also used his executive power to push profoundly progressive concerns that had long been considered third-rail issues in Washington. He declared the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and instructed his Justice Department to stop defending it; he halted deportations of immigrant youth and provided them a path to getting work permits; and his administration stipulated that health-insurance plans must cover contraception.

In his first two years, Obama was not the champion that many progressives had hoped he would be. His administration put little time into advancing important pieces of legislation regarding climate change, immigration reform, and labor organizing. On health-care reform, the White House was quick to abandon a public option and later cut a deal on abortion that many reproductive rights advocates believe might pave the way to restricted access down the road.

In response to their initial disappointment with the president's early performance, many progressives speculated that Obama was just waiting for a second term to be more liberal.

A more likely explanation is that Obama was still finding his groove, figuring out which levers worked best for him in the context of governing the nation. And in some ways, he was still developing the courage of his convictions.

In Chicago Tuesday night, President Obama sounded like a man transformed -- a man, in fact, much like the one we first met at the 2004 Democratic Convention. That man told us there were no red states or blue states -- there was only the United States of America. But the Obama who won re-election struck a new note, too, that of a president humbled by four years of governance renewing his appreciation for his compact with the American people.

"The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote," he told the crowd in his acceptance speech. "America's never been about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government."

Obama now knows how and when to pull the levers of Washington to his advantage. Meanwhile, his White House and the products it produces have become a truer reflection of its leader. The issues that his more centrist advisers viewed as toxic -- same-sex marriage, immigration reform, and reproductive rights -- became the centerpiece of his reelection bid and paid off big.

Heading into his second term, Obama will have the experience, the counsel, and the conviction to more fully deliver progressive change, thanks to his embrace of insiders and outsiders alike.

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Kerry Eleveld is a freelance writer, consultant, and former White House correspondent for The Advocate.

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