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Obama, Enthusiasm & Movement-Building


A friend called me the other day. ‘Bill,’ he said, ‘How will all of this enthusiasm for Obama translate into anything long-term?’ He went on to comment on the potential this upsurge of support for Senator Obama COULD have for a progressive movement. The discussion led me to draw some conclusions I would like to share with you.

 

First, and as I have noted in previous columns, we must all be clear as to what politics Senator Obama holds and what politics he does not hold. He is not the political reincarnation of The Rev. Jesse Jackson (and his ’84 and ’88 campaigns) and he is not the leader of the progressive movement. In reviewing his platform and his speeches, I do not see much difference from the platform of Senator Clinton, a fact which I think helps to explain some of the intensity between the two of them. Thus, we should not try to make of him something he is not. Such an approach will lead to long- term problems.

 

Second, and also as I have noted, the waves of enthusiasm for Obama derive from a variety of different sources, some completely idealistic and others grounded in an absolute hatred of what we have experienced in the Bush years (and to some extent during the earlier Clinton years), and, therefore, a demand for something very different.

 

Yet what complicates all of this is the unevenness in Obama’s platform. What we confront is potential for change in a progressive direction rather than leadership in a progressive direction. In other words, Obama opens up possibilities, but as can be repeatedly demonstrated, there are inconsistencies in his views and approach, as well as times when he is just wrong. The unilateral attack carried out by the US against Al Qaeda in Pakistan by the Bush administration just recently was perfectly consistent with what has been advocated by Obama. The consequences of such actions are simply incalculable.

 

So, what does this mean?

 

I keep coming back to Obama’s own words when he speculated as to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would do vis-à-vis the presidential elections if he were still alive: pressure all the candidates! Pressure, however, needs organization and it needs courage. It means that we have to point out to the campaign and the candidate precisely when we think he is wrong, and in doing so we should point him in the direction that needs to be taken.

 

But when the campaign is over, whether it is at the Democrat Convention or in November, if there is nothing to build upon, the enthusiasm will evaporate as it has on so many other occasions after energizing electoral campaigns. I would suggest two steps:

 

 1. Progressives for Obama:

 

   While there are many progressives who have entered into the Obama campaign and are doing good work, there needs to be an independent voice and location to push progressive politics. I spoke the other day with someone working in the campaign that – as enthusiastic as she is – acknowledged that a number of the proposals her committee has been developing have simply been overlooked. My guess is that more of that will happen and the candidate will be increasingly influenced by financial contributors and those forces he believes to be most significant. If the progressive voice is only one among many, it will be drowned out. Progressives need to figure out where they can make a difference in the larger campaign as well as explain to their respective constituencies why they are taking the step of supporting Obama; what to expect and what not to expect from the candidate; and what can be done now.

 

 2. Build locally-based, independent political organizations:

 

   Electoral activism and energy is so easily and quickly lost. For those who have become motivated through this campaign, they should be encouraged to build organizations in their communities and social movements that reflect progressive politics. Such organizations should be grassroots based and, among other things, aim to identify, train and run progressives for local elected office. Holding a President of the USA accountable – be it Obama, Clinton, McCain or Huckabee – will necessitate organization at the base, organizations capable of both putting people into the streets as well as getting them to the polls.

 

There are tremendous dangers AND opportunities in this election season. Casting caution to the wind and uncritically supporting any candidate is a recipe for disaster. We must expect that there will be immense tugs to the Right on any elected official. If progressives are not prepared to push back and keep Obama’s feet to the fire then every reservation that many of us have about his candidacy will become a self- fulfilling prophecy.





Bill Fletcher, Jr. is Executive Editor of The Black Commentator. He is also a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum.

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