There is now a consensus, and rightly so, that the election process and tally were historic for their impact on party alignments, public mood, race relations, and the hopes and aspirations of minorities. Another achievement is the construction of teams of organizers for Obama, who appear to number in the millions, all networked for rapid response and eager to add their creativity and clout to serious campaigns for change. By the time you read this, Obama will have chosen part of his White House staff and at least a few of his cabinet officials, maybe even most of them. He will also have begun communicating with that mass of supportive organizers—or not.
What will Obama’s choices tell us? Where do we go now? Here are some possibilities.
The optimistic "we all dance in the streets and then get busy" scenario.
In this scenario, which many activists and some of the general population hold, Obama is committed to serious progressive change beyond campaign talk—including methodically reversing Bush’s executive orders, regulating markets, including some nationalization, undertaking large scale infrastructure development, legislating tax redistribution from corporate mansions toward people in need, propelling extensive green investment in alternative energy development and conservation, pursuing further reductions of racism and sexism both structurally and via his own instructive efforts, implementing universal quality health care, initiating equitable and affirmative expansion of public and higher education, withdrawing from Iraq, drastically reducing military expenditures, engaging in rational international diplomacy, and moving on from there.
What would the first few weeks look like if this optimistic scenario was in fact Obama’s agenda? What should we see in his choices to make us believe in this scenario or, in his choices, to make us feel this scenario is never going to happen?
Pursuing any of the above aims, much less all of them, would be met with sustained elite opposition well beyond what detractors tried during the campaign. To overcome this, Obama would need massive popular support. More, to elicit and sustain such popular support, as well as to have reliable people in his Administration with whom to promote progressive programs, he would have to make Cabinet and other appointments not to appease adversaries, but to strengthen ties with allies. Obama would have to raise expectations, not dampen them. He would have to further galvanize supporters, rather than dismantle the organizations built during the campaign, as happened to the Rainbow Coalition after Jesse Jackson’s candidacy.
However, even in this optimistic scenario, it would be hard for Obama to populate his Administration without dipping into the pool of people experienced at governing, which means folks from the Clinton era, at least to an extent. This is partly because such people are by definition not only ready, but available, and, because in the midst of crises, Obama has to function effectively from day one and that requires having people on board who know their way around Congress, the Senate, and the White House, who know what buttons to push, what doors to knock on, what allies to include, what enemies to overcome.
So even in the optimistic scenario we should expect many appointments of old familiar faces whose key defining virtues are competence, loyalty, insider savvy, strategic sense, etc., but who will also be ideologically compatible with or at least not opposed to Obama’s presumed agenda. Otherwise even the most hopeful Obama supporters will have to write off the optimistic scenario.
The best single indicator of Obama’s commitment to "change we can believe in" will likely be the treasury secretary appointment. Paul Krugman toting his Noble Prize into Washington or Robert Kuttner and a bunch of folks who come from labor moving into the White House would be more positive signs of a possible industry bailout that would be about public gain, not private—even including serious nationalization. Paul Volcker or Larry Summers and a parade of owners and bankers taking up residence would be bad news indeed.
Perhaps the second most revealing indicator will be relations with Obama’s massive team of networked supporters. Does Obama put it to progressive work or does he shut it down or channel it in vacuous directions? This will mark the difference between an Administration tied to popular movements—learning from and respecting them while also seeking to raise popular consciousness and activism against elites—and an Administration that governs overwhelmingly on behalf of elites.
The moderately exciting but not remotely transformative scenario.
In this more muted but still positive scenario Obama goes beyond a minimalist liberal program to actively assist the poor, at least somewhat, but stops well short of provoking elite hysteria.
Indicators of this scenario would include appointing a cabinet filled with typical insiders, with perhaps one or two sops to progressives, and a few to the right as well, plus embarking on one or two program efforts, early in the first year, that reveal the positive aspects of the path.
As indicative programs, look for ending the Iraq occupation, for not expanding the war in Afghanistan, and for utilizing health expenditures as economic stimulus with the working class benefitting and universal health care achieved. When it comes time to bail out the auto industry, which is beginning to look imminent, expect an approach that doesn’t give away the whole gain to capital, but actually involves at least some public control and even a bit of "asset reclamation"—otherwise called nationalization—but only to a limited degree.
These steps, if undertaken, will indicate a better than run of the mill agenda, but, coupled with demobilizing his team of organizers and talking a lot about being patient, these steps would also reveal Obama’s intention to retain alliances with the rich and powerful by carefully avoiding "going too far."
The Clinton redux "we all mourn and then organize" scenario.
This regrettably most likely case will see Obama install the same old faces in his Administration to pursue the same old policies, save perhaps for undertaking a flawed health campaign that will be played up as the accomplishment of the ages combined with a bit more market regulation than the lunatic fundamentalist fringe—now known as the young Republicans in Congress—would have undertaken.
Verbal clues that we are headed back toward Clintonism will be an emphasis on getting on track and on the need to compromise, while lowering expectations raised by campaign promises of hope, change, and "yes, we can" empowerment.
Organizational clues will be letting the grassroots apparatus that the Obama supporters built fade into oblivion or re-channeling it into patriotic and obedient irrelevance.
Programmatic clues will be quietly and apologetically extending the Iraq occupation, regretfully expanding war in Afghanistan, and aggressively enacting a Paulson-style bailout of the auto industry, plus celebrating a health plan that will barely work at all, and doing little else.
Whether unlikely optimism is born out and we face aggressive government innovation that welcomes movement involvement or we face limited reform seeking to damp down movements or we face business as usual profiteering while eagerly repressing movements, people of good will have essentially the same task. We must push for progressive gains, even as we lay the groundwork for moving beyond reform into redefinition—or in the words of current punditry, transformation.
Michael Albert is co-founder of South End Press and Z Communications. He is also the author of numerous articles and books, including Parecon: Life After Capitalism and Realizing Hope.