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Notes on an Orientation to the Obama Presidency


The election of Obama, while enthusiastically embraced by most of the left, has also occasioned some disorientation and confusion.

Some have become so used to confronting the dismal electoral choice between the lesser of two evils that they couldn’t figure out how to relate to a political figure who held out the possibility of substantive change in a positive direction.

Others are so used to all-out, full-throated opposition to every administration that they wonder whether and how to alter their stance.

Still others sat out the election, for a variety of political and organizational reasons, and were taken by surprise at how wide and deep ran the current for change.

Now there’s an active conversation on the left about what can be expected of an Obama administration and what the orientation of the left should be towards it.

There are two conflicting views on this:

First, that Obama represents a substantial, principally positive political shift and that, while the left should criticize and resist policies that pull away from the interests of working people, its main orientation should be to actively engage with the political motion that’s underway.

Second, that Obama is, in essence, just another steward of capitalism, more attractive than most, but not an agent of fundamental change. He should be regarded with caution and is bound to disappoint. The basic orientation is to criticize every move the administration makes and to remain disengaged from mainstream politics.

It is possible to grant that Obama is a steward of capitalism while also maintaining that his election has opened up the potential for substantive reform in the interests of working people and that his election to office is a democratic win worthy of being fiercely defended.

Obama is clear – and we should be too – about what he was elected to do. The bottom line of his job description has become increasingly evident as the economic crisis deepens. Obama’s job is to salvage and stabilize the U.S. capitalist system and to perform whatever triage is necessary to restore the core institutions of finance and industry to profitability.

Obama’s second bottom line is also clear to him – and should also be to us: to salvage the reputation of the U.S. in the world; repair the international ties shredded by eight years of cowboy unilateralism; and adjust U.S. positioning on the world stage on the basis of a rational assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the changed and changing centers of global political, economic and military power – rather than on the basis of a simple-minded ideological commitment to unchallenged world dominance.

Obama has been on the job for only a month but has not wasted a moment in going after his double bottom line with gusto, panache and high intelligence. In point of fact, the capitalists of the world – or at least the U.S. branch – ought to be building altars to the man and lighting candles. They have chosen an uncommonly steady hand to pull their sizzling fat from the fire.

For some on the left this is the beginning and the end of the story. Having established conclusively that Obama’s fundamental task is to govern in the interests of capital, there’s no point in adjusting one’s stance, regardless of how skillful and popular he may be. For the anti-capitalist left that is grounded in Trotskyism, anarcho-horizontalism, or various forms of third-party-as-a-point-of-principleism, the only change worthy of the name is change that hits directly at the kneecaps of capitalism and cripples it decisively. All else is trifling with minor reforms or, even worse, capitulating to the power elite. From this point of view the stance towards Obama is self-evident:

criticize relentlessly, disabuse others of their presidential infatuation, and denounce anything that remotely smacks of mainstream politics. Though this may seem an extreme and marginal point of view, it has a surprising degree of currency in many quarters.

The effective-steward-of-capitalism is only one part of the Obama story. Obama did what the center would not do and what a fragmented and debilitated left could not do. He broke the death grip of the reactionary right by inspiring and mobilizing millions as agents of change. If Obama doesn’t manage to do even one more progressive thing over the course of the next four years, he has already opened up far more promising political terrain.

His campaign:

- Revealed the contours, composition and potential of a broad democratic coalition, demographically grounded in the (overlapping) constituencies of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, youth across the racial groups, LGBT voters, unionized workers, urban professionals, and women of color and single white women, and in the sectors of organized labor, peace, civil rights, civil liberties, feminism, and environmentalism. Obama did not create this broadly democratic electoral coalition single-handedly or out of whole cloth, but he did move it from latency to potency and from dispirited, amorphous and unorganized to goal oriented, enthusiastic and organized;

- Busted up the Republican’s southern strategy, the foundation of their rule for most of the last forty years, and the Democrat’s ignominious concession to this legacy of slavery;

- Wrenched the Democratic Party out of the clammy grip of Clintonian centrism. (Although he himself often leads from the center, Obama’s center is a couple of notches to the left of the Clinton administration’s triangulation strategies); and

- Rescued political dialogue from its monopolization by hate-filled, xenophobic, ultra- nationalistic ideologues.

This is not change of the anti-capitalist variety, but certainly it is change of major consequence.

If the criterion is that the only change to be supported is that which strikes a decisive blow at capital, then the gap between where we are now and the realignment it would take to strike such a blow is completely and perpetually unbridgeable.

A better set of criteria, in light of the weakness of the left and the decades of hyper-conservatism we are only now exiting, is change that: creates substantially better conditions for working people; broadens the scope of democratic rights for sectors of the population whose rights have been abrogated; limits the prerogatives of capital; constrains runaway militarism and perpetual war; takes seriously the prospect of environmental collapse; and creates better conditions for struggle. This is the potential for change that Obama’s presidency has generated. This is the democratic opening. It is potential that will only be realized and maximized if the left and progressives step up and stay engaged.

These are also the criteria to keep in mind as the Obama presidency unfolds, rather than flipping out over every appointment and policy move he makes. Far better to de-link from the 24-hour news cycle that feeds on micro-maneuvers, stop making definitive judgments based on parsing the language of every pronouncement, and keep our eyes on the broader contours of change.

Besides the sectors of the anti-capitalist left that are stranded on Dogma Beach, there are those who see the tide running high but are still watching from the safety of the shore, hesitant to get in the water. There are those who have been so long alienated from mainstream political processes and so disgusted with both political parties and all branches of government that their default response is instinctive distrust. They view Obama’s  presidency through the lens of anticipatory disillusionment. Their basic orientation is to analyze the administration’s every move with the goal of concluding, ‘See, we told you so. Obama’s gonna burn you. You’re gonna be disappointed.’ This is a mindset for jilted lovers, not political activists. Let us grant without argument that, from the vantage point of the left, there are many disappointments in store.

This is easy enough to predict based not only on Obama’s own politics but also on the alignment of forces and institutions in which he is embedded. And so what? We can survive disappointment over this or that policy or concession as long as we are making headway on the broader criteria above.

There are also those who stayed on the shoreline during the campaign because they are wedded to localism as a matter of preference, principle or habit. Others were lodged in organizational forms that, for structural, political or legal reasons, could not articulate with the motion and structures of the presidential campaign. These are complicated issues, bound up as they are with questions of resources and patterns of philanthropy But for those who missed interacting with the motion of millions against the right, against the white racial monopoly on the executive branch, and for substantive change, their absence should, at the very least, prompt a serious examination of political orientation and organizational form.

Finally, there are those who are struggling to negotiate the existential shoals of a commitment to anti-capitalist politics in a period when the system is manifestly dying but not nearly at death’s door (and there have been all too many chronicles of that death foretold); major alternative systems have only recently collapsed or capitulated; and the vision, values and program that might bind together an anti-capitalist left and win broad support are still frustratingly obscure. There’s no remedy for this dilemma except to live in the times we’re in meeting the challenges we’ve been given and making the most of every opportunity, rather than anticipating capital’s demise or pining for a past beyond recovery.

In this period, then, the left has three tasks.

Our first job is to defend the democratic opening. This is a job we share with broader progressive forces and with centrists. Obama won big and retains the favorable regard of a sizeable majority. And meanwhile the Republican Party is in glorious disarray. But in no way should we take this situation for granted. The new administration faces daunting challenges and outright crises on every front. And while the right is disoriented and weakened, it has not and will not leave the playing field. The principal players and institutions of the right are, at this very moment, plotting how to undermine the administration, challenge every initiative that moves in the direction of democracy, progress and peace, and regroup to seize control, once again, of the state apparatus.

Defense of the democratic opening means many things and ought to be the subject for discussion and strategizing on the left. But in practical terms, first and foremost, it means consolidating and extending the electoral alliance that made the opening possible. Any work that strengthens and broadens the voter engagement of the constituencies and sectors that secured Obama’s election is work that defends the democratic opening. This kind of voter education, registration and mobilization work can be done in conjunction with an extremely broad range of local campaigns and initiatives. And anything that hastens the demise of the southern strategy, builds on the wins in Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia (along with the significant southwestern shifts in New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada), and challenges structural barriers to voter participation (e.g., felony disfranchisement, voter ID laws) is critical. All this is another way of saying that the electoral arena is an essential site of struggle for left and progressive forces in a way it has not been in at least 20 years. And this work, in which we have unity of purpose with the centrists, is vital to widening the Democratic majority in the 2010 congressional races, winning a filibuster-proof Senate majority, ensuring the successful re-election of Obama in 2012, and shaping both the parameters of viable Democratic candidates in 2016 and the outcome of that election.

Our second job is to contribute to building more united, effective, combative and influential progressive popular movements. This places the highest premium on strengthening and extending our ties with broader progressive forces, both inside and outside the Democratic Party, with an eye towards building long- term relationships and alliances among individuals, organizations and sectors. Anything that thickens and enriches the relationships among left and progressive actors in labor, religious institutions, policy think tanks, grassroots organizations, academia etc. is to be supported in the interests of strengthening the capacity of the left-progressive alliance to influence policy, to encourage and shore up whatever progressive inclinations might emerge from within the administration, and to resist administration tendencies to accommodation and capitulation to center-right forces. At this early stage of Obama’s tenure it is already evident what some of the most vital left- progressive alliance building ought to focus on. In foreign policy, on war and militarism in general and on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, Iran and non-proliferation in particular. In domestic policy, on health care and on solutions to the economic crisis that hold the financial sector accountable for reckless and predatory practices while addressing the particular vulnerabilities of working people, the poor, women, immigrants and communities of color. And, at the intersection of global and domestic policy, on oil dependency and global warming. All that enhances our capacity to constructively engage in debating and influencing policy on these issues is to the good. All that obstructs or distracts is highly problematic.

We’ve exited a period of collective psychic depression only to enter one of global economic depression. Each day, as the institutions of finance capital collapse, the corruption, greed and mismanagement of the nation’s economic system are further revealed. Broad sectors of the population have been shocked into a more skeptical and critical stance towards capitalism, and the need for some measure of structural change wins near- universal acceptance. The clash of rising expectations (encouraged by the hope and change themes of the Obama campaign) and a sinking economy will likely spark new levels and forms of popular resistance. In this political environment, alliance building will be complicated, messy and filled with political tensions and tactical differences. It is imperative nonetheless.

Our third job, and perhaps the trickiest, is to build the left. First let it be said that unless we are able to demonstrate a genuine commitment and growing capacity to take on the first two jobs, the third is a non-starter, and a prescription for political isolation. In other words, defending the democratic opening in conjunction with the center and building long-term relationships between the anti-capitalist left and broad progressive sectors in the context of the struggle over administration policy must be understood as critical tasks in their own right, not simply as arenas in which to advance an independent left line or to recruit new adherents to an anti- capitalist perspective. Realizing the progressive potential of the Obama win requires the most committed involvement with the twists and turns of politics on the most pressing issues on the administration’s agenda. This same engagement is critical to rebuilding the left, a long-term process that can be advanced significantly in the context of Obama’s presidency if, and only if, the left can skillfully manage the relationship and distinction between its own interests, dynamics and challenges and those of broader political forces. Why is this the case? On the tell no lies front, the left is more isolated and fragmented than it has been in forty years. Truly fine work is being done by leftists in every region of the country and on every social issue. But the left qua left is barely breathing. This is not the place to go into the historical (world historical and U.S. historical), ideological, theoretical and organizational reasons why this is so. But let us, at the very least, frankly acknowledge that it is so. The current political alignment provides an opportunity to break out of isolation, marginalization and the habits of self- marginalization accumulated during the neo-conservative ascendancy. It provides the opportunity to initiate and/or strengthen substantive relationships with political actors in government, in the Democratic Party, and in independent sectors, as well as within the left itself – relationships to be built upon long after the Obama presidency has come to an end. It provides the opportunity to accumulate lessons about political actors, alignments and centers of power likewise relevant well beyond this administration. And it provides the opportunity for the immersion of the leaders, members and constituencies of left formations in a highly accelerated, real world poli-sci class.

In these circumstances, among our biggest challenges is how to attend to building the capacity of the left without succumbing to the siren songs of dogma, the old addictions of premature platform erection, or the self- limiting pleasures of building parties in miniature. For the anti-capitalist left, this is a period of experimentation. There is no roadmap; there are no recipes. Those organizational forms and initiatives that enable us to synthesize experience, share lessons and develop broad orientations and approaches to seriously undertaking our first two tasks should be encouraged. Those that would entrap us in the hermetic enclosures of doctrinal belief should be avoided at all cost.

The Obama presidency is a rare confluence of individuals and events. There is no way to predict how things will unfold over the next 4-8 years. But this much we can foresee: if the opportunity at hand is mangled or missed, the takeaway for the left will be deepened isolation and fragmentation. If, on the other hand, the left engages with this political opening skillfully and creatively, it will emerge as a broader, more vibrant force on the U.S. political spectrum, better able to confront whatever the post-Obama world will bring.

Linda Burnham is co-founder of the Women of Color Resource Center (WCRC) and was its Executive Director for 18 years.  Burnham has been working on racial justice and peace issues since the 1960s and on women- of-color issues since the early 1970s, and has published numerous articles on African-American women, African-American politics, and feminist theory in a wide range of periodicals and anthologies.  In 2005 Burnham was nominated as one of 1000 Peace Women for the Nobel Peace Prize. Burnham is a frequent featured speaker on college campuses and to community groups, addressing issues of women’s rights, racial justice, human rights and peace. Burnham’s writing and organizing are part of a lifelong inquiry into the dynamic, often perilous intersections of race, class and gender.

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