A Progressive Obama? It Takes a Movement.

FDR, our most progressive president, had the support of a massive labor movement. Photo courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum.

Barack Obama: deeply flawed,
and it’s our job to make him better

By Kathy G.

Kathy G. is a shrill feminist, bleeding heart liberal, hardcore policy wonk, political junkie, ardent cinephile, and lover of 19th century novels. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two loveable mutts, where she is attempting, amidst numerous diverting distractions, to complete a Ph.D. in the social sciences.

Steve Russell / The Rag Blog / June 28, 2008

If you’re a liberal Obama supporter, this past week or so has sucked pretty hard. We’ve seen Obama move sharply to the right on a number of fronts, including:

* hiring the centrist, pro-Walmart economist Jason Furman as his economic policy director (and yes, I know that Furman’s done good work on issues like Social Security privatization, but if you’re truly committed to a progressive economic vision, he’s not the guy you’d be hiring);

* naming, as his campaign chief of staff, Jim Messina, who served as chief of staff to Max Baucus, and who appears to strongly support Baucus’s pro-corporate agenda;

* forming a Working Group on National Security that consists mainly of reanimated corpses from the 80s and 90s (Warren Christopher, Sam Nunn, David Boren, Madeleine Albright) rather than fresh, bold new thinkers like Samantha Power;

* making statements that are strongly supportive of NAFTA and that conflict with his position during the primaries (Obama is now saying he won’t unilaterally re-open NAFTA);

* releasing a campaign ad, his first of the general election, which hits on right-wing rather than progressive themes (it emphasizes “cutting taxes” and “moving people from welfare to work” — why not “universal health care” and “getting the hell out of Iraq”?);

* and, finally, throwing his weight behind the FISA “compromise,” which deservedly earned him Atrios’s dreaded “wanker of the day” award.

I’ve gotta say, though — all this was utterly predictable. It’s not only that, once the general election campaign starts, presidential candidates tend to move to the center. It’s that, as I’ve been telling anyone who would listen, Barack Obama is, in substance if not in style, an extremely cautious, utterly conventional, center-left politician. If you want to see real, transformative change in this country, he is not your guy.

The second coming of FDR he is not. As president, I think he’s far more likely to resemble Bill Clinton — except he’ll be a Bill Clinton who can keep it in his pants and will likely be governing with large majorities in both houses of Congress. Which does not thrill me — I never liked Clinton much and held my nose while voting for him.

This is not say Obama is a bad guy at all. He’s whip-smart, he’s a compelling speaker, he’s honest (by “honest” I mean not corrupt, and not — insofar as politicians go, anyway — particularly prone to false or misleading statements, and he has a pretty decent voting record overall. His campaign so far has been most impressive, particularly in the managerial and grassroots organizing departments. I will always give him enormous credit for speaking out against the Iraq War at a time when almost everyone else in public life was running scared. Indeed, after my first choice candidate, John Edwards, dropped out, I chose him over Hillary largely because I think he’s less likely to get us involved in stupid wars than Hillary is (my other reasons were that he’s less tainted by corporate sleaze than she is, and that I thought there was more of a chance he’d be slightly more liberal overall).

And also, it must be said — in case you haven’t noticed, in this country, we do not elect liberal presidents. FDR was a fluke — he was elected when the country was suffering an economic crisis of epic proportions, and even then few believed he’d end up governing as far to the left as he did. LBJ was the other great liberal domestic policy president, but that, too, was a fluke. In the (admittedly totally tasteless) formulation of a friend of mine, the best thing that ever happened to civil rights in this country was the bullet through JFK’s head. It was only in the aftermath of the martyrdom of JFK that the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. could have been passed. And even then, it still required every last ounce of LBJ’s political genius to get them through.

So, in all honesty, I think Obama is about the best we can do. Yes, he opposed the war from the start. But he’s been vague about when he’d start withdrawing troops, and unlike candidates like Bill Richardson, he supports letting residual troops remain. His voting record is decent overall, but it contains some serious disappointments, such as his support of the FISA compromise. Like 95 per cent of the other Democrats in Congress, he’s not exactly a profile in courage.

I’ve been familiar with Barack Obama for a while now. First as my state senator and now as my U.S. senator, he has sometimes greatly impressed me, but often frustrated and disappointed me as well.

He’s an illustrative story: a few years ago, an activist friend of mine was working to pass a bill in the Illinois legislature regulating payday loans. His group met with a number of members of the legislature, including Barack. Many of the elected officials they spoke with told them exactly what they would and would not be able to do. Barack listened sympathetically, but didn’t make any promises or in fact tip his hand in any way (didn’t even say what he wouldn’t be able to do, and that kind of info was useful to my friend’s group). And when push came to shove, Barack didn’t do a damn thing.

My friend (who, by the way, has given money to Obama and voted for him in the primary) said ruefully that he wasn’t particularly surprised: “That’s the Barack Obama I know.” He pointed out that a good chunk of Barack’s campaign donations come from the banking and financial services industry in Illinois and he thinks that was probably the main reason Barack didn’t want to take action on the payday loan issue.

The fact is, in his entire public career Barack Obama has never stuck his neck out for anyone or anything. He’s never once taken on a big, high-profile cause or project that was highly controversial or risked failure. Yes, there’s his early opposition to the war on the one hand; but on the other hand, once he got to the U.S. Senate he did little to, you know, try to stop the war, and his votes on the war have been utterly conventional Democratic votes.

Yet Hillary Clinton, when she was about the age Barack is now, took on the daunting task of developing a health care plan. And even though that ended up being a huge failure, at least she took the risk. If she became president, I truly believe that she’d do her damndest to make universal health care a reality in this country. If John Edwards became president, he’d work like hell to enact his populist economic agenda of universal health care, making it easier to join a union, expanding the EITC, etc.

But Barack Obama? Honestly, I don’t have a freaking clue. I think he’ll govern like the utterly conventional Democrat that he is, but I have no idea what his policy priorities are, or what burning issue drives him.

Over this past election season, on websites and listservs and in conversations, I’ve seen an awful lot of cheap, hacktacular electioneering in favor of one candidate or another. But at the end of the day, I don’t think there was ever all that much of a difference between Hillary and Barack. Or between those two and Edwards, for that matter. Hillary and Barack had voting records and positions on the issues that were close to identical. They’ve both taken shitloads of money from Wall Street, and it’s pretty clear to me that each of them is captive to corporate special interests. Indeed, I interpret Obama’s recent rightward shift — Furman, Messina, the remarks about NAFTA, the FISA compromise — as saying to the corporate interests, “Never fear — we’ll be playing ball as usual with you folks.”

As president, either Barack or Hillary, or Edwards, would be infinitely better than any Republican, but from a progressive point of view, each of them would also far short in some pretty profound and powerful ways.

But you know what? Ultimately, I don’t think that they as individuals are to blame for that. I don’t think Barack, or Hillary, or Edwards, are bad people. I don’t think that Barack Obama, for example, went into politics so he could sell civil liberties down the river in favor of giveaways for the telecom industry. But the incentive structure in politics these days is such that he decided he had more to gain by supporting the FISA “compromise” than by opposing it.

This is where we, as liberals, progressives, lefties, activists, whatever-you-want-to-call-us, come in. I do not believe that our interests are best served by the kind of cheap electioneering we saw over the primary campaign. What would be far more effective would be an independent movement that makes strategic alliances with various political candidates but is also distinctly separate from them.

Instead of shilling for Barack, or Hillary, or whomever, we should have been pressuring the candidates to work for our votes. We should have been pressing them to take firm, non-negotiable positions in favor of things like no immunity for the telecoms, or immediate withdrawal from Iraq with no residual troops. Instead, we were really cheap dates. And when you act like suckers, don’t be surprised when something like Obama’s support for the FISA compromise comes back and bites you in the ass.

If we want real change in this country, the place to look for it is not in our so-called leaders, but in ourselves. What we need, in short, is a movement. Without such a movement, President Obama is not going to be able to achieve a whole lot more than President Clinton or President Carter did. But with such a movement, we may actually get somewhere. FDR was able to achieve great things because he had the strong support of a powerful labor movement. Similarly, the civil rights movement was the wind at LBJ’s back. But I ask you, what will President Obama have?

Obama, like just about every other politician out there, is cautious, but also highly pragmatic. Like everyone else, he responds to incentives. As activists, what we need to do is to move the political center of gravity in this country to the left. To change the incentive structure so that it will be easier for him to do the right thing. This is a far sounder strategy, over both the short and the long term, than waiting for saints or messiahs to come along.

I’ll close with one of my favorite political stories. It concerns my all-time favorite president, FDR. He was meeting with a group of reformers trying to persuade him to support one of their goals. After they finished speaking, FDR said to them, “You’ve convinced me. I want to do it. Now make me do it.”

And that, my friend, is the task at hand.

Do something positive: Support Regina Thomas.

If you’re as disgusted as I am by the way Barack Obama and the rest of the Dems folded like a cheap camera on the FISA issue, do something positive about it — donate money to Georgia state senator Regina Thomas. Thomas is an African-American who is running in the July 15th Democratic primary for Congress in Georgia’s 12th district against the reactionary, pro-war, anti-inheritance tax, anti-immigrant, pro-telecom immunity incumbent, John Barrow. Thomas has sterling progressive credentials and given the fact that she’s running against a conservative white man in a Democratic primary where 70% of voters are African-American, a lot of people think she has an excellent shot at winning.

Bloggers such as Digby, Matt Stoller, and the crew at Firedoglake have already come out in support of Thomas.

To donate money to Regina Thomas via ActBlue, click here.

Kathy G.

Source. / The G Spot / June 21, 2008

Response from Carl Davidson:

I think the conclusion of this is right–we get what we want, some of it anyway, the hard old-fashioned way, organizing our own clout at the base and building upward. The FDR story is a case in point.

But I wouldn’t say he’s ‘deeply flawed.’ Obama is what he is. Obama is a ‘high road’ industrial policy capitalist and multipolar globalist–just read his Cooper Union speech a while back. Clinton is a garden-variety corporate liberal capitalist, which got her on the board of Walmart for years. And McCain is a US hegemonist and an unreconstructed neoliberal capitalist–‘state all evil, market all good’–that kind that says ‘We’re in business to make money, not steel, so we’ll gut these plants and speculate in oil futures, and the workers and towns be damned.’ In other words, the ones who ‘cut taxes’ by putting everything on the China Visa card and got us into this mess.

Actually, truth be told, Obama’s brand of capitalism is best for productive businesses, as opposed to speculators, and does least harm to the working class. He’s never been a socialist, anti-imperialist, or even a consistent progressive or social democrat. That doesn’t mean we can’t press him to be better at what he is or asserts, as in ending the war in 2009, and in promoting and building infrastructure for new green businesses and green jobs for youth. All those solar panels and wave and wind turbines have to be built somewhere by someone. And he has started doing more of this recently, along with his other tacts to the center-right.

We need not be surprised, and in fact it’s one of the reasons we set up ‘Progressives for Obama’ in the first place, knowing this would happen. When your task is to win a majority of Democratic votes and defeat other Democrats in a primary, you put your policy package together in one way. When your task is to win a solid majority of all voters–progressive and center–to isolate and defeat the right, you put it together another way. It’s called politics. What we want to urge, I think, are value-centered politics, where you have a core that keeps you anchored, and avoid any 180 degree turns from one audience to another.

So far, Obama’s been fairly true to his own core values. But we need to understand that while our values overlap with his, they are not entirely the same. As I said earlier, he is what he is, and it will still be the greatest popular electoral victory in my lifetime if we can help put him in the White House. A far more interesting struggle opens up, front and center, the next day. But that’s a problem I’ve also been looking forward to having all my life.

Carl Davidson / The Rag Blog / June 28, 2008

Progressives for Obama.

The Rag Blog

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