Sunday, August 17, 2008

Progressives in the Obama Movement

Progressives in the Obama Moment
By Robert L. Borosage & Katrina vanden Heuvel
The Nation
August 13, 2008

Electric. When Barack Obama receives the Democratic
presidential nomination before 75,000 people in Denver's
Mile High Stadium on the forty-fifth anniversary of
Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, new
possibilities will be born. A historic candidacy, a new
generation in motion, a nation yearning for change. Even
the cynics running the McCain campaign might be touched,
if they weren't so busy savaging Obama as a vain
celebrity not up to the task of leading a nation.

No one should be blinded by the lights. It will take
hard work to turn the nomination into victory in a
campaign that has already turned ugly. Moreover, even if
victorious, Obama will inherit the calamitous conditions
wrought by conservative failures--a sinking economy,
unsustainable occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan,
accelerating climate change, Gilded Age inequality, a
broken healthcare system and much more.

Obama will also be limited by the constricted consensus
of an establishment not yet able to contemplate the
changes needed to set this country right again. To be
successful, his presidency will have to be bolder and
more radical than now imagined.

A historic candidate, the forbidding conditions and the
constricted consensus make it vital that progressives
think clearly and act independently in forging a
strategy over the next months. The following is a
contribution to a rich and ongoing discussion. We invite
others to join it at in the weeks to come.

A Sea-Change Election

The Obama nomination sets the stage for a sea-change
election, one that could not only elect a Democratic
President and increased reform majorities in both houses
of Congress but also mark a clear turn from the
conservative ideas that have dominated our politics for
three decades.

In recent weeks, the media--primed by a Republican
strategy contrasting Obama's purported doublespeak with
McCain's alleged Straight Talk--have focused on Obama's
compromises and backsliding. Much of the alleged
retrenchment has been exaggerated. Some of it--like his
fold on the FISA wiretap bill, mixed signals on trade,
the compromise on offshore drilling--has been clear and
deplorable. Many on the left were dismayed as the Obama
campaign trotted out advisers from a Democratic bench
that had championed the toxic Rubinomics brew of
corporate trade and financial deregulation.

These concerns should not distract us from the central
reality: this election features a stark ideological
contrast. Although marketed as a trustworthy maverick,
McCain accurately describes himself as a "foot soldier
in the Reagan revolution" and attests that "on the
transcendent issues, the most important issues of our
day, I've been totally in agreement and support of
President Bush." He is committed to the full Bush
catastrophe: continued war in Iraq, more tax cuts for
the wealthiest, more corporate trade deals, more
deregulation, more hostility toward labor, more
conservative social policies and reactionary judges.
Indeed, he's Bush on steroids. McCain seeks not only to
privatize Social Security but also to unravel employer-
based healthcare, leaving people to negotiate alone with
insurance companies liberated from regulation. His
bellicose posturing on Iran and Iraq is as disastrous as
his pledge of impossibly deep cuts in domestic programs.
He embraces the corporate economic and trade agenda that
has so devastated the American middle class. If he is
defeated, it will mark the end of the Reagan era.

Obama clearly offers a change of course. His victory in
itself will require overcoming the racial fears that
have so long divided this country. He carries a reform
agenda--largely driven by progressives--into the
election: an end to the occupation of Iraq, using the
money squandered there to rebuild America; affordable
healthcare for all, paid for by raising taxes on the
wealthy; a concerted drive for energy independence,
generating jobs while investing in renewable energy and
conservation. He is committed to empowering labor, to
holding corporations and banks more accountable and to
challenging our trade policies. A social liberal, his
judicial appointees will keep the right from
consolidating its hold on the federal judiciary. Obama
may not be a "movement" progressive in the way that
Reagan was a "movement" conservative, and he may have
disappointed activists with his recent compromises, but
make no mistake: his election will open a new era of
reform, the scope of which will depend--as Obama often
says--on independent progressive mobilization to keep
the pressure on and overcome entrenched interests.

As this is written, an election Obama should win handily
is locked in a virtual tie. Both the Obama and McCain
campaigns treat the race as a referendum on Obama, with
the former focused on getting Americans comfortable with
trusting a young African-American with an unusual name,
and the Rove minions in the McCain campaign intent on
stoking the fears that enabled them to assemble a white
majority party in the past.

Obama's campaign will not succeed without the
independent efforts of progressive activists. One
central task is winning support among wary white blue-
collar workers, the core target of the Rovian poison.
This will require persuasion as well as mobilization;
the work of the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, Working America,
religious groups and others with a base in these
communities in swing states will be of critical

Progressives generally--and independent media and the
blogosphere specifically--can contribute by reminding
voters there's a clear choice in this election, with
McCain representing the same old, same old. While
exposing McCain's doubletalk, his Bush-redux agenda and
the money and interests behind the scurrilous right-wing
independent expenditure campaigns, progressives can also
help build support for reform. The new Health Care for
America Now coalition, for example, has the resources to
expose McCain's healthcare folly, thereby building a
mandate for universal coverage. The antiwar movement
should be challenging McCain's saber-rattling on Iraq,
Iran and Afghanistan, helping to strengthen US support
for a change in course. With gas prices at the center of
American concerns, the environmental alliance around
jobs and energy can consolidate support for a concerted
drive toward energy independence, while challenging
absurd claims that we can drill our way out of the

Driving Reform

While focusing on what is certain to be a difficult
campaign, progressives should start thinking now about
strategy for an Obama presidency. Clearly his election
and inauguration would mark an exciting moment. At home,
a new sense of energy and idealism will be unleashed.
Across the world, his election will begin the process of
restoring America's ravaged reputation. Not only will
Obama usher a new generation into politics, but for the
first time a President with experience as a community
organizer will have the ability to mobilize directly a
dedicated following larger than any other in politics
[see our roundtable forum of community organizers].

In the first months of an Obama administration,
progressives should be pursuing an inside-outside
strategy in relation to the administration. For example,
in the transition, we should push to place allies in
strategic positions, particularly in the areas of
economic policy and national security. The AFL-CIO and
other groups are preparing lists of potential
candidates. These inside efforts should be complemented
by watchdog monitoring and reporting on potential
nominees. No free pass should be given to those who
drove the financial and trade policies that led to the
current economic debacles or supported the invasion of
Iraq, the worst foreign policy fiasco in recent history.

For Obama to achieve his core promises, he will have to
push significant reforms early. As Dan Lazare has
argued, our entire political system is designed to block
reform, not facilitate it. Periods of significant change
in American politics are rare, but they feature spasms
of furious activity: Roosevelt's first 100 days,
Johnson's push in 1964-65, Reagan's reaction in 1981-82.
Inevitably, these spasms don't last long before reaction
sets in. So it is vital to move rapidly and boldly and
across many areas to have any chance at success.

Obama's first decision--to be made, no doubt, during the
transition--will be the most telling. He has pledged
that he will instruct the Joint Chiefs of Staff to
prepare a sensible plan for ending the Iraq occupation.
Already, Democratic security advisers who initially
supported the war are calling for "conditional
engagement," arguing that the United States can't afford
simply to set a timetable to get out. Thus it is vital
that the peace movement organize aggressively during the
campaign, and mobilize independently and visibly
immediately after the election. The Obama White House
must have no doubt about the firestorm in Congress, in
the streets and within the Democratic Party that would
be caused by a retreat from this pledge.

If the Iraq promise is kept, progressives will sensibly
work to help define Obama's agenda from the inside and
support key parts from the outside. He will lay out a
major initiative on jobs and energy. He has said that
he'll try to push through healthcare reform quickly--
although that is likely to trigger trench warfare in
Congress (and progressives will have to overcome deep
internal divisions to ensure that fundamental reform
succeeds). Obama will reverse many of the reactionary
Bush executive orders, from the global gag rule to
secrecy excesses stemming from the "war on terror." His
first budget decisions most likely will have to deal
directly with a broader stimulus plan to get the economy
going. He has pledged to support passage of the Employee
Free Choice Act, enabling workers to organize unions
without employer harassment.

But Obama will encounter formidable obstacles. He'll
face a business lobby girded for battle. Corporations
have already begun moving more of their money to
Democratic incumbents and are snapping up former
Democratic legislators and staffers for their lobbies
[see "Dollars for Donkeys" on page 28]. They will do
everything they can to stall healthcare and drug-pricing
reform, empowerment of workers and re-regulation of Wall
Street. Moreover, while Democrats are likely to enjoy
larger majorities in both houses, their caucuses are
likely to be less progressive as they pick up seats in
very conservative, formerly Republican districts.

Progressives will enjoy their greatest strength
mobilizing independently to support Obama's promises. We
can organize constituent pressure on politicians who are
blocking the way, something even a President with
Obama's activist network would be loath to do. We can
expose the lobbies and interests and backstage maneuvers
designed to limit reforms. Now that newspapers
increasingly lack the resources for investigation,
progressive media, online and off, and the independent
progressive media infrastructure--from The Nation to
Media Matters to Brave New Films to The Huffington
Post--must assume a greater role in monitoring the
opposition, even as we mobilize activists in targeted
districts across the country.

In doing this, we can help give backbone to the Obama
agenda, even as we supply muscle and energy to help pass
it. The best way to achieve this is to generate large-
scale independent-issue campaigns. A clear example is
the Healthcare for Americans Now Coalition, which is
ready to take on the insurance companies and support the
White House's commitment to universal care. The new Half
in Ten Campaign, spearheaded by ACORN and the Center for
American Progress Action Fund, will help ensure that
poverty does not disappear from the agenda. Progressives
generally should join the AFL-CIO and Change to Win in
their drive to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. The
Apollo Alliance and a range of environmental efforts
will support the initiative on jobs and energy.

Acting in support of Obama will require challenging
legislators in both parties who stand in the way, a task
progressives should undertake aggressively. The Service
Employees International Union has already taken the lead
in announcing a $10 million "accountability program,"
designed to force politicians to heed the will of their
voters, with a new plan--Justice for All--as the core
vehicle. This should be complemented by other
independent efforts, despite likely objections from the
Democratic Congressional leadership and possibly the
White House. Democrats should be on notice from their
own constituents that they will be expected to help move
reform, not stand in its way.
See the entire post.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a very idealistic article. The political system in this country is so entrenched in bureaucracy I can't see the Obama presidency being a sea change in any meaningful way.

Socially it is an interesting change -- Obama is black, the son of a Kenyan immigrant who spent part of his youth in Indonesia. This is unprecedented for a presidential candidate and it's certainly a departure from the "old guard" of political players.

That said, Obama will not be able to institute serious reforms. How will the corporate-political structure allow it? There may be minor reforms, sure, but certainly no drastic changes regarding universal healthcare or the war on drugs, for example. The political system will not allow it.

I want to see Obama win, but his vote on FISA is too deplorable for me to vote for him. I'm in Illinois so I'm going to vote third party unless he revokes his support for the FISA bill: