When it comes to the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the mistake people made was mistaking voting for activism. I believe that before we have any discussion on whether and how we can bring Obama home to progressive values, we must first come to terms with this reality.
It's not as if you can blame them. After eight years of a disaster that was the Bush administration, voters wanted and needed a major change in the direction of the country. We needed to wipe the slate clean and set a new tone for America. A new man for the times came on the scene. He was a person of color, clean and articulate, and with lofty rhetoric. And he provided hurting, hungry people with hope and promises of change. In fact, he was the embodiment of change.
Now, in 2011, things are a little different. Main Street is hurting, and unemployment is high and seemingly intractable. Meanwhile, as poor and working people struggle and fail to keep their necks above water, Wall Street and the corporate elites never had it so good. Profits are at a record high, and the gap between the richest of Americans and the rest of us is higher than at any time since the first Great Depression.
In the midst of this, the current administration has lacked the backbone, the heart and the intestinal fortitude to fight for ordinary folks. There have been some successes for progressives over the past few years, to be sure, but sprinkled among a larger host of disappointments and missed opportunities. The President made no attempts at a public option or single payer health insurance system, opting instead for a watered-down compromise plan that has proven itself as a giveaway to corporate interests. He extended the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest people in this nation, and embraces budget cuts that support the fraudulent Republican narrative of austerity and trickle-down economics. The Bush military policies continue, as does the practice of rendition and detaining terror suspects at Guantanamo. And when the President goes to the bargaining table to negotiate with the Republicans, he gives away the store right away and asks for nothing in return. Democrats, progressives and other Obama supporters are shaking their heads in disbelief. Where is the fighting spirit, the will to work hard for our values?
Part of the problem is that Obama took the Goldman Sachs money in the presidential campaign, and has to play their tune. He stacked his inner circle with Wall Street water carriers and Clinton-era neoliberals with a deregulation fetish. These are the people who helped create the country's economic mess, in which the plenty greedy were allowed to plunder America's resources by gambling it all away at the casino.
The other part of the problem is Obama's quixotic journey to the political center. There is nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines and road kill, and you'd better believe it. Although his campaign rhetoric was progressive, this president chooses to govern from the middle. That decision in itself is questionable for a number of fundamental reasons:
- First, the people who elected Barack Obama did not want a centrist who stands for nothing, sees how the wind is blowing and splits the difference. They wanted bold, decisive leadership, not a referee-in-chief.
- Second, such a strategy hopes to garner support from undecided independent voters who want Democrats and Republicans to play nice together, while ignoring the base. Sometimes, compromise is not a prudent step, particularly if your opponent has an unacceptable point of view. These voters live solely in the minds of inside-the-Beltway prognosticators and pundits.
- Third, governing from the center is a tough proposition when you fail to define what the center actually is. Ultra-rightwing Christian fundamentalism is driving the center in its traditional sense rightward. So, if your desire is to be Republican-light, be forewarned that when a fake Republican runs against a real Republican, the Republican always wins.
- Fourth, President Clinton was able to get away with triangulation, but that was Clinton's style. Plus, Bill had the benefit of a booming economy. So, although the base was angry when he sided with the Republicans to end welfare as we know it, he remained popular. But there is a sense today that voters are done with the foolishness. And the protests in Wisconsin and elsewhere point to a pushback against a conservative onslaught that would dismantle the New Deal-Great Society legacy.
If the disgruntled Obama supporters thought they would get everything they wanted from this White House - without lifting a finger other than to cast their ballot in the voting booth - they were sorely mistaken. Elections are important, but are no substitute for the hard work of building movements, coalitions and institutions. At the same time, diehard Obama supporters and apologists who say he is just one man and cannot do it alone must realize that he is not doing it alone. He has an administration filled with intelligent, capable individuals. Yet, Democrats have not put enough pressure on Obama, which is why we are here today. But Democratic leaders--including progressive lawmakers and members of the Congressional Black Caucus-- and groups such as MoveOn.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee(PCCC) are pushing back, challenging the President to reject the Republican budget agenda, and not to cut programs for low income people.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph to "go out and make me do it," that is, make him use his power and the bully pulpit to right the wrongs and do the things they both agreed should be addressed. That is precisely what today's progressives must do with Obama. They must build the infrastructure of an independent movement that supports the President when he deserves it, and pressures him out of love, like a wayward family member, when necessary. Most of all, this movement must look toward the future, with the goal of surviving beyond an Obama administration or any other presidency.
Progressives must also craft a media narrative that places their ideals squarely in the political center, with the President having no choice but to embrace them. Justice for union workers, a living wage and benefits, a clean environment, social safety net and fighting against wealth inequality are mainstream policies. Triangulation is both unnecessary and counterproductive for a president who already enjoys support among moderates, who have fled the GOP in droves. The once mainstream Republican Party is now dominated by conspiracy theorists, crackpot Birthers in the mold of Donald Trump, self-righteous religious zealots and morality police, and Neo-Confederates. They want to turn extremism into the mainstream, and make ignorant the new smart. It is hard to imagine finding common ground with a party whose core constituencies include hate groups.
Further, the base must remind President Obama that the Republican goal is to run the economy into the ground -- and his presidency with it -- all for political gain. Therefore, he has no choice but to come home. And progressives should make it clear that if he wants a second term, he most certainly must come home in order for his supporters to come out next Election Day. That is not to say the Obama voters will flock to a viable challenger from within or outside the Democratic Party. Rather, many of them, demoralized and lacking in enthusiasm, simply will stay home and, by default, bestow victory upon the Republicans. That's what happened in the 2010 midterms, and the rest is history.