On November 4, the American people by a popular majority of more than eight million votes selected as their new President a Democratic contender who had been attacked by his Republican foe as a radical who "began his campaign in the liberal left lane of politics and has never left it."
If only. In truth, Barack Obama was never the Che Guevara in pinstripes that the rightwing attack machine conjured up. His record on Capitol Hill was never "more liberal than a Senator who calls himself a socialist [
Thompson had apparently forgotten not just George McGovern but Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, all of whom sought the Presidency as more left-leaning contenders than did Obama in 2008. And, as McGovern, an able historian, himself reminds us: Franklin Roosevelt put contemporary Democrats to shame when it came to embracing and advancing radical notions.
For today’s liberals and progressives, who find themselves moving from the comfortably predictable opposition stance of the Bush-Cheney interregnum to the more challenging position of dealing with the first Democratic President elected with something akin to a mandate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, it is important to see Barack Obama for who he is and his admini-stration for what it can be. The best way to do this is not by listening to Obama’s Republican detractors-or to the lite-Republicans of the
After he secured the delegates required to claim the Democratic nomination, Obama found himself at a town hall meeting in suburban
The Senator was clearly offended by the suggestion. "Let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center or that I’m flip-flopping or this or that or the other," he began. "You know, the people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me."
Obama continued: "I am somebody who is no doubt progressive. I believe in a tax code that we need to make more fair. I believe in universal health care. I believe in making college affordable. I believe in paying our teachers more money. I believe in early childhood education. I believe in a whole lot of things that make me progressive."
Those were not casually chosen words. Barack Obama knows exactly what it means to say he is a "progressive." When he does so, he is not merely avoiding the word "liberal," as the sillier of his rightwing critics like to claim. Obama actually understands the subtle nuances of the American left. This is a man who moved to Chicago to be part of the political moment that began with the 1983 election of leftie Congressman Harold Washington as the city’s first African American mayor, who studied the organizing techniques of Saul "Rules for Radicals" Alinsky, who worked with proudly radical labor leaders to defend basic industries and avert layoffs, who used his Harvard-minted legal skills to fight for expanded voting rights, who was mentored by civil libertarian legislator and federal judge Abner Mikva, who discussed the intricacies of Middle East policy with Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi, and who learned about single-payer health care from his old friend and neighbor Dr. Quentin Young, the longtime coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program. And, famously, Obama did not just make anti-war sounds before
Obama knows not just the rough outlines of the left-labor-liberal-progressive agenda, but the specifics. He does not need to be presented with progressive ideas for responding appropriately to an economic downturn, to environmental and energy challenges, to global crises and democratic dysfunctions. He has, over the better part of a quarter century, spoken of, written about, and campaigned for them.
I first covered Obama a dozen years ago, when he was running for the
So why not pop the champagne corks and celebrate Obama’s nomination and election as a victory for what the late Paul Wellstone described as "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party"? Because knowing the ideals and values of the left is not the same as practicing them. As a Senator, Obama did not take Feingold as a role model. In fact, they differed on essential constitutional, trade, and Presidential accountability issues, with Obama consistently taking more cautiously centrist positions. One of Obama’s first votes in the Senate was to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. Dr. Young wrote to his friend. "I told him I was disappointed in him," the veteran campaigner for peace and social and economic justice recalled. "Rice was the embodiment of everything that was wrong with this Administration. So, he called me back and he said: ‘Why didn’t you pick up the phone and call me? Do you think Bush would ever send to the Senate a nominee for Secretary of State who I could vote for? I said: ‘You ara the constitutional lawyer. It’s about advice and consent, right? You should have denied him your consent.’ "
Young was, of course, right. But the lesson that should be taken away from the Rice vote, and from the many disappointments that have followed it, ought not be that Obama is a hopeless case. In fact, quite the opposite. In that conversation with Young, the Senator outlined the relationship that the left ought to develop with a powerful but as yet ill-defined President.
Obama was nominated and elected in 2008 by progressives, both younger tech-savvy activists who made his candidacy an early favorite of the blogosphere and old-school liberal precinct walkers who saw in his candidacy an extension of the frustrating work of opposing all that was Bush and Cheney. The Senator won the Democratic nomination because he was the only first-tier contender who could say that he had opposed authorizing Bush to take the country to war with
Similarly, as he campaigned in key states such as
What Internet activists such as OpenLeft.com’s Matt Stoller and Firedoglake.com’s Jane Hamsher did during the FISA fight was roughly equivalent to what Obama told Dr. Young to do back in 2005: "Pick up the phone and call me." They were undermined by a rally-round-the-candidate mentality that protected Obama during the campaign season. Yet netroots activists made themselves heard and earned a response from candidate Obama. And they can do much more with respect to President Obama. As Hamsher notes, "We can get the public engaged."
And so they must, especially with that portion of the public that took seriously the candidate’s promise of "change we can believe in." But to do this effectively, activists cannot wait for Obama to define the playing field. They must assume that he knows what they know. And this requires a radically different approach than the left took to Southern centrist Democratic Presidents such as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
The way to influence Obama and his Administration is to speak not so much to him as to
Smart groups and individuals are already at it. The United Steelworkers union has been way ahead of the curve in critiquing the financial services bailout and in working with Congressional allies such as Ohioans Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich to challenge the basic assumptions of a top-down bailout. The Laborers union has been promoting a fully developed infrastructure-investment plan that represents a smart stimulus. The American Civil Liberties Union is already prodding Obama to keep a series of promises he made during the campaign with regard to civil liberties and abuses of executive power, and providing concrete examples of how he can do so. The ACLU and other groups will be working with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee such as Feingold to assure that Obama’s Justice Department nominees are asked the right questions.
Perhaps most impressive are the moves made by the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, Physicians for a National Health Program, and Progressive Democrats of America to ensure that the option of single-payer is not forgotten as Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi establish their domestic policy priorities. To that end, sixty activists from these and allied groups met one week after Election Day at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington with Michigan Congressman John Conyers, an early Obama backer and the chief House proponent of real reform, to forge a Single-Payer Healthcare Alliance and plot specific strategies for influencing the new Administration and Congress.
The point won’t be to teach Obama about single-payer. Less than six years ago, he told the Illinois AFLCIO: "I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program. I see no reason why the
Since then, Democrats have taken back the House, the Senate, and the White House. The man who set those prerequisites in 2003 will sit in the Oval Office in 2009. But change didn’t just come to
Franklin Roosevelt’s example is useful here. After his election in 1932, FDR met with Sidney Hillman and other labor leaders, many of them active Socialists with whom he had worked over the past decade or more. Hillman and his allies arrived with plans they wanted the new President to implement.
It is reasonable for progressives to assume that Barack Obama agrees with them on many funda-mental issues. He has said as much.
It is equally reasonable for progressives to assume that Barack Obama wants to do the right thing. But it is necessary for progressives to understand that, as with
John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison,