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The Hope of Obama


Barack Obama’s resounding victory has brought even this cynical observer of Democratic Party politics to dare to hope, believing that — as a child of the Eisenhower era — I will soon be witnessing the most progressive presidential administration of my lifetime.

 

This hope, which I fully realize may prove to be naive, rests upon Obama’s personal history as a community organizer, his base of support in the party’s left wing, and the remarkable shift in internal Democratic Party politics in recent years.

 

Obama’s Background

 

There are a number of aspects of Obama’s personal history which would seem to indicate empathy for those less fortunate. One, of course, is the fact that he is a black man in a racist society. Another is that he grew up in Indonesia (a poor Asian country) and Hawaii (the most racially diverse and economically stratified state.)

 

More significant, however, is Obama’s political history:

 

Though the desperate lies and hyperbole from the Right regarding Obama’s supposed far-left roots and radical associates are easily dismissible, Obama does come out of a progressive grassroots tradition.

 

At Occidental College in the early 1980s, he became immersed in the anti-apartheid movement. His first public speech was at an event sponsored by the Students for Economic Democracy, part of a national student advocacy group set up by former California State Senator and progressive activist Tom Hayden. Though there have certainly been student activists from the late 1960s who later moved well to the right, left-wing campus activism was not nearly as trendy during Obama’s college years, which were during the heyday of the Reagan Era, when College Republicans were often the largest and most visible political group on many campuses.

 

Upon graduating from Columbia University, while most of his classmates were pursuing lucrative careers elsewhere, Obama began working in working-class black neighborhoods of South Chicago as an organizer for the Developing Communities Project, then reeling from the collapse of the steel industry. His salary was only $13,000 a year, plus $2,000 to purchase a beat-up Honda Civic for transportation, recognizing, in his words, "There was something more than making money and getting a fancy degree."

 

Rejecting Chicago‘s tradition of taking advantage of personal connections with elected officials to elicit a few crumbs, Obama instead embraced the organizing tradition of Saul Alinsky and other community activists of confronting officials with resolute citizens demanding accountability.

 

Later, as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama was recruited by hundreds of top corporate law firms and was offered a prestigious clerkship for a federal appeals court, but he turned them all down to return to South Chicago to continue working to empower people to challenge the system. (By contrast, his fellow Ivy League law school grad Hillary Clinton was then in Arkansas serving on the board of Wal-Mart.)

 

In the buildup to the 1992 elections, as an alternative to the national Democratic Party’s emphasis on fighting for the small number of undecided voters in the middle, Obama — as director of Project Vote! — instead worked to expand the party’s progressive base through registering traditionally underrepresented poor and minority voters, resulting in unexpectedly large Democratic victories in Illinois that year.

 

This history is indicative of someone who not only is cognizant of the impact government policies have on disadvantaged segments of society, but who recognizes that power ultimately comes from below.

 

Obama’s Progressive Base

 

From the beginning of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, it was obvious that Obama’s policy positions were not nearly as progressive as those of Dennis Kucinich or even John Edwards, and Obama did not differentiate himself much on major issues in the subsequent contests with Hillary Clinton. At the same time, public opinion polls indicated that, with some minor exceptions, Obama supporters overwhelmingly identified with the left wing of the party — and in particular, with the peace movement — than did Clinton supporters.

 

Though Obama’s position regarding current Iraq policy was only marginally better than Clinton‘s, it was his strong and principled anti-war stance prior to the invasion that made the critical difference in the minds of millions of Democratic voters. The very week in October 2002 when Clinton — in a desperate effort to justify her vote to authorize unprecedented war powers to President Bush — was standing on the floor of the Senate falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein had somehow redeveloped his chemical and biological weapons arsenal and his nuclear weapons program and that he was supporting al Qaeda terrorists, Obama was speaking at an anti-war rally in Chicago, noting that Saddam did not at that time pose a threat to the United States or his neighbors and that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could end up being a disaster for both the United States and the region.

 

Obama’s honest and prescient understanding of Iraq prior to the invasion gives hope that as president he will be less inclined to engage in such acts of reckless militarism. Indeed, he has insisted that "I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place."

 

Even if one is to assume that Obama is more hawkish than his early opposition to the war would indicate, he surely recognizes that he owes his nomination — and therefore his election — to those who opposed the invasion of Iraq and who voted for him based in large part because of his anti-war position.

 

Indeed, exit polls from the primaries indicate that the majority of Obama supporters were to the left of their candidates’ stated positions on most major foreign and domestic policy issues. Surely Obama is aware of this. And, just as leading Republican elected officials who may not personally care that much about such issues as abortion or gay rights nevertheless feel a need to satisfy their base by making appointments and supporting policies that will appease them, Obama is likely to recognize this reality as well.

 

Another good sign is that no serious presidential candidate in recent decades has ever raised such a high percentage of his or her contributions from small donors. Unlike the Clintons and other leading Democratic presidential contenders whose election campaigns were primarily supported directly or indirectly by powerful corporate interests, Obama’s donor base is far more diverse.

 

Countervailing Tendencies

 

Admittedly, there are huge qualifiers to all of the above.

 

For example, Obama has also received enormous contributions from those with strong corporate ties and other special interests, to which he will likely also feel beholden. His refusal to support a single-payer health care system and his calls for increasing the already-bloated military budget are but two examples of where he may feel a need to formulate policies based more upon powerful corporate interests than his electoral base.

 

Furthermore, Obama’s selection of Joe Biden, an early and ardent supporter of the invasion of Iraq and other dangerous and militaristic foreign policies, as his vice presidential running mate was nothing less than a slap in the face to this anti-war constituency and could be an ominous sign of the kind of people he would appoint to key foreign policy positions. (See my articles "Biden’s Foreign Policy ‘Experience’" and "Biden, Iraq, and Obama’s Betrayal.") One the one hand, Obama’s core foreign policy advisers have included some of the more critical, innovative and enlightened members of the foreign policy establishment, such as Joseph Cirincione, Lawrence Korb, Susan Rice, Richard Clarke and Samantha Power. On the other hand, his advisers have also included the likes of Dennis Ross, Anthony Lake and Merrill McPeak, whose commitment to international law and human rights have proven to be very weak.

 

Even if one were to assume the best in terms of Obama’s political inclinations and policy agenda, he will be under enormous pressure from the Pentagon, corporate interests, Congressional Republicans and many Congressional Democrats to move to the right. The corporate media will likely be on the attack against even a hint of progressive policy initiatives, and Obama could be on the defensive from the outset. Progressives may feel obliged to focus more on defending Obama’s policies — as inadequate as some of them may be — from such attacks than pushing him to the left.

 

This has led many to assume that the election of Barack Obama after eight years of Bush would simply be a repeat of the false hope from Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 after 12 years of Republican rule.

 

However, the Democratic Party rank and file is far more engaged and — according to recent polls — significantly more liberal politically than it was 16 years ago. Indeed, the Progressive Democrats of America is now at least as influential within the party as the Democratic Leadership Council. People are fired up and not in the mood for Bush Lite. More Americans volunteered for and were otherwise personally mobilized on behalf of Obama’s campaign than any electoral campaign in history, doing so on the belief that real change would be the result, and are therefore not willing to settle for either the status quo or the status quo ante.

 

There is also a new generation of Congressional Democrats, many of whom are significantly more liberal than when Clinton came to office. And there is little risk that they will lose their majorities any time soon, as was the case less than two years after Clinton became president.

 

In short, the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, along with an expanded Democratic majority in Congress, may be the best electoral result that progressives can reasonably hope for, given the reality of the American political and economic system. That’s a huge qualifier, to be sure. But it is not insignificant. Indeed, given the power of the American president, even a small difference can make a big difference in the lives of millions of people.

 

Some commentators have noted that the only other Democrats elected by such a clear majority in the past century were Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, whose administrations — despite the distraction of wars — did more than any other presidents in advancing the rights of less fortunate. It is also important, however, that both administrations were prodded by progressive mass movements demanding it.

 

The key is whether the activist community is willing to continue on the offensive and take advantage of what may be an unprecedented opening in Washington to affect real change. This is an opportunity that must not be squandered.

 

 

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco and serves as a senior policy analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus.

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