Barack Obama
Credit: Pete Souza/Flickr

For eight years I had the indescribable honor of serving in President Obama’s White House, most recently as Special Assistant to the President & Director of Rapid Response.  I played a lot of different roles, but going back through the 2008 transition and even back to the DNC during that campaign, I’ve served as a nexus between the White House and progressive advocates, bloggers, journalists, and pundits — I thought it might be worth sharing some of my perspective publicly with any progressive that cares to read it.

First and foremost: I say in all honesty that very little would have gotten done without you, and it’s become even more clear to me in these final days that your constructive criticism/ pushing/ occasional outrage helped make this White House a better White House, and this President a better president.

Looking forward, as bleak a moment as this is in many ways, I’m optimistic for the future of progressives and the Democratic Party.  As contentious as things can sometimes seem within our side, I think there’s remarkable consensus on the kind of progressive change we need, captured in great detail through the hard work of the unified Democratic platform.  I think a lot of the goals we had coming into 2009 have seen immense measurable accomplishment, more so than virtually any pundit would have thought possible at the time.  On so many issues, progressives and President Obama have helped move the Overton window in the right direction (take some time to reflect on political conventional wisdom in 2008 and I think you’ll agree).

But part of progress is having to defend that progress, sooner or later, with your back against the wall.  That time came sooner than expected, but it was always going to come.  And reversing it is going to be a lot harder than Republicans advertised, because the benefits are just so damned real.

As we all continue to grapple with the election’s aftermath, there’s one critique that I’ve heard from the media, from some supporters of the incoming Administration, and from some folks on the left who I truly respect, that I want to take on — namely that the Democratic Party and/or Obama “didn’t fight for working people.”

That I can’t abide.

· When Obama passed the Recovery Act, a bigger stimulus than the New Deal, the infrastructure spending, the investments in clean energy manufacturing, and the Making Work Pay tax cuts were for working people.

· When we passed the Affordable Care Act, that was aimed straight at working people — white working people, black working people, Hispanic, Asian, and tribal — and Republicans are now finally having ‎to face up to that fact. Not just the 20+ million who got coverage, but the ~150 million with pre-existing conditions and the vast majority of Americans who get their coverage through work who were always at risk of getting screwed by some insurance company loophole. It was for people like my parents who are self-employed and could never afford real insurance for our family while I was growing up.

· When we passed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, that was for working people who were getting screwed every which way by predatory financial industries.

· When Obama executed the auto bailout, despite shudder-inducing unpopularity at the time, a million working people kept their livelihoods.

· When Obama ended the Bush tax cuts for millionaires, even as he ‎extended working class tax cuts like the Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit, and the new American Opportunity Tax Credit, that was for working people.

· When we repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and helped make marriage equality a reality, that was for working people who wanted to live free of discrimination in a loving relationship or serving their country.

· When we implemented Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), that was for working people who just wanted‎ to come out of the shadows and contribute to this country in the light of day.

· When Obama signed the law to reduce crack/cocaine sentencing discrepancies, and pushed the sentencing commission for reform, and made a cause out of his presidential commutation power, and pushed to “ban the box” on employment forms, that was for working people who wanted to ‎make a living for themselves and their families, and not have their lives destroyed by some drug offense that a wealthy kid might have gotten a slap on the wrist for.

· When the President brought more than 90% of our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, stayed out of a full blown ground war quagmire in Syria despite constant criticism, ‎and used diplomacy to block Iran’s nuclear program and avoid another war, that was for the working people who make up America’s military — white working people, black working people, Hispanic, Asian, and tribal — who want to serve their country and get an education they might not otherwise be able to afford, and who are treated like cannon fodder by Washington’s war “hawks.”

· When Obama took on toxic pollution on things like mercury‎ and countless other rules, that was for working people, who are the ones who bear the brunt of that toxicity, saving tens of thousands from sickness and death.

· Setting aside the fact that climate change will destroy the planet that working people work on, he has also pushed against widespread skepticism, constant political criticism, and even mockery,‎ to make clean energy a source of manufacturing jobs for working people for decades ahead, and there is now widespread agreement that the clean energy revolution has begun — and can’t be reversed.

· When Obama took major executive actions and pushed to make fair pay and paid leave central to the political debate, to recognize them as economic issues and not solely gender equality issues, that was, obviously, about working people.

· Executive actions on overtime pay, payday lenders, crooked retirement brokers: working people.

· And when Obama pushed for the American Jobs Act, for immigration reform, for universal background checks, for universal pre-K and free community college and for minimum wage increases, and was blocked by Republicans, that was all for working people.

Obama wasn’t perfect; with any president you can find shortcomings, and more people that could have or should have been helped; we owe it to those people to learn lessons and do better in the future.  But I honestly believe he will be remembered as one of our greatest presidents, precisely because fighting for working people is literally what got him (and his staff) out of bed in the morning, what made him love and cherish the job up to the very last day.  And the Democratic Party, which buckled down and sacrificed huge numbers of its members for the sake of insuring tens of millions of people, and which in vast majority stood strong to stop war in Iran, has been a party I can believe in as a vehicle for change, for all its warts.

All of that is to say that I’m proud, and I hope you’ll be proud too of what you’ve been a part of and witnessed.  Because it is now all under threat from the party that actually disdains the working class. Take stock of what we’ve done together, because the time to defend it has already come. And the fight is not for Obama’s legacy, nor would he want it to be.  It’s for working people, be they white, black, Hispanic, Asian, tribal — even Trump’s own voters.

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Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseCharlesLee. Jesse Lee served as Special Assistant to President Obama & White House Director of Rapid Response. Prior to the White House, he worked for the Democratic National Committee and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.