At the time, progressives saw a world of difference between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton backed the Iraq invasion that Obama opposed, and spent her early career as a corporate lawyer and boosting Wal-Mart while Obama went to the hard streets of Chicago to work as a community organizer. Clinton was seen as uncharismatic, beholden to the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, unwilling to implement transformational change, and lacking Obama’s ability to rally historically disenfranchised and infrequent-voting constituencies to the polls. I wrote a piece in July 2007 outlining how disappointing a Hillary Clinton presidency would look like, and have no doubt that progressive support for Obama over Clinton was the right move at the time. But if progressives had a crystal ball that foresaw how Obama would perform as President by the end of 2010, I think most would have backed Hilary Clinton. Here’s why.

Last week was a turning point for progressives’ relations with President Barack Obama. When Paul Krugman described the situation at the White House as a “moral collapse – a complete failure of purpose and loss of direction,” he captured the dominant tone of the progressive community as reflected in a blizzard of articles, blog posts and private and public conversations.

In the course of bemoaning Obama’s surrender to Republicans out to destroy both him and progressive causes, I asked myself whether I still would have supported Obama over Clinton knowing what would occur. And in thinking about it I realized that progressives are in a far worse situation with the current version of Obama than we ever would have been in with Clinton.

Defusing Progressive Opposition

If Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination, she clearly would have beaten John McCain and become President. It was a Democratic year, and while Clinton would have won fewer states and Democrats might have picked up fewer congressional or Senate seats, she would have encountered a political environment in January 2009 quite similar to that which Obama found.

And let’s consider how progressives would have responded to some of Clinton’s critical early moves.

On health care, progressives would have gone ballistic if Clinton, like Obama, had made a secret deal with Big Pharma to kill a public option. But Obama faced no such firestorm, or even much of a backlash outside of Firedoglake and other progressive sites.

Progressives and groups like Democracy in America, Move On and others spent months accepting Obama’s claim that he wanted a public option, downplaying the signals offered by the President’s giving control of health care to Max Baucus and urging input from conservative Republicans like Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi. Progressives like myself were so convinced that grassroots organizing would create the base Obama needed to secure a public option that we did not consider – as we would have done with Clinton –that the President did not care about disappointing his progressive base on this key issue.

We’ll never know if a President Hilary Clinton would have passed a better health care law. But she never would have allowed the process to continue so long that it crowded out the rest of her ambitious first year agenda.

Obama’s escalation of the Afghanistan war is another example of how progressives remained largely silent when they would have taken to the streets under President Hilary Clinton. For all of us who opposed Clinton’s candidacy for her often neo-conservative foreign policy views, the only difference between her potential policies and Obama’s actual ones is that the latter have brought little public dissent among Democrats.

Because progressives did not trust Clinton, they would have always been on the alert and not hesitated to mobilize against a Democratic President. The same has not been true regarding Obama. While activists are now speaking out in force, in recent weeks you have not heard Democratic Senators or congressional leaders or even Howard Dean criticizing the President from the left

Paul Hogarth wrote on December 9, 2009 that Obama was “becoming the Clinton I feared.” Sadly, today’s Obama is far worse.

From “Yes We Can” to “Why Bother”?

The most powerful and exhilarating impact of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and victory was his success at inspiring young people, infrequent voters, and the disenfranchised. People who had not voted for decades, and had given up all faith in the system, committed themselves to helping Obama bring the “Change We Can Believe In.”

Hilary Clinton could never have inspired such a mass drive for transformational change. But the flip side is that Barack Obama’s failure to fight for real change, and his surrender of his agenda in the face of Republican intransigence, has powerful destructive long-term consequences for rebuilding a progressive movement.

How are organizers going to convince those brought into the world of electoral politics by Obama that they should still believe that elections can make a difference in their lives? You may get these folks to vote in presidential elections, but we have seen surprisingly small Democratic turnout in almost every election since 2008 and this trend is likely to continue.

Obama has made it harder than ever for activists to convince people that mobilizing for change through the electoral process can bring results. He has boosted the cynicism about government that his campaign sought to dispel, and left many feeling more hopeless than ever about the ability of activism to overcome corporate and other big money forces.

The Left’s Manchurian Candidate

Some right-wingers have argued that Obama is a Manchurian Candidate, a Socialist sent by a foreign government to destroy capitalism and the United States. But Obama is actually proving to be the “Manchurian Candidate” for the Left, running as a candidate of hope and real change and then using his presidency to destroy both.

The late great scholar/activist Howard Zinn may have foreseen this, expressing grave concern about Obama in a January 2010 message, stating “Obama is going to be a mediocre President – which means, in our time, a dangerous President – unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”

The problem is that progressives have structured and funded their “national movements” around elections, and there is really nothing in place that can push Obama “in a better direction.” Obama’s feeling toward progressive activists was made clear when Press Secretary Robert Gibbs bashed the “professional left” during an August 2010 interview, as it is now clear he was speaking for Obama.

The activist model for holding politicians accountable assumes these officials will act in their political self-interest. When they do not, as when Obama ignores popular opposition to tax cuts for the wealthy, an issue particularly important to his Democratic base, than the President’s onetime supporters become profoundly disempowered.

There are those on the left who do not trust any person who is capable of winning the presidency, but even many of them were inspired by Obama. Now, any future presidential candidate professing support for progressive change will find a nation repeating the Who’s classic, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” as the once promising Barack Obama fosters disappointment, cynicism, hopelessness and rising economic inequality as his tragic legacy.

If you are looking for hope and inspiration in these trying times, try Randy Shaw's Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, now available in paperback.