Among the fantasies arising from Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was that progressives would hold him politically accountable. Even candidate Obama subscribed to this view, as he urged supporters to keep him on track should he detour from the path to Change. But progressives have long given the President a pass
. The response to Obama’s State of the Union address shows that many progressives prefer unconditional cheerleading to questioning the President’s plans. For example, SEIU cheered Obama’s “clear call to action to solve our jobs emergency,” ignoring the President’s call for a five-year spending freeze on the very job-creating domestic programs that organized labor strongly supports. Unfortunately, such cheerleading simply enables future progressive betrayals. It also sends a strong message to the White House that progressives view themselves as too weak to firmly back their own agendas.
It’s painful to remember that Barack Obama ran against Hillary Clinton by arguing that the Clinton presidency had not been as transformative as Ronald Reagan’s, and that he would go beyond small reforms to bring Change We Can Believe In. Progressives who never accepted Clinton neo-liberalism as a calculated response to the rise of Newt Gingrich and Republican control of the House now cheer Obama as the only force preventing a Palin-Bachmann-Tea Party takeover.
A Failed Strategy
Progressive groups cheer Obama to maintain White House access and their “seat” at the policy discussion table. Some feel that public criticism simply aids Obama’s right-wing opponents, and believe constantly boosting Obama helps his re-election chances.
Unfortunately, such enabling did not prevent Obama from betraying progressives on the health care deal (he secretly abandoned
the public option while claiming
he still backed it), escalating war in Afghanistan (to a level and duration far beyond what he suggested in his campaign), ignoring comprehensive immigration reform (but setting records for deportations), and promoting the budget deficit as equivalent to full employment as a national priority has not moved the President to the left.
Nor did progressives’ attempts to mollify their base over Obama’s actions boost progressive voter turnout in the midterm elections. The fact that so many young people and voters of color skipped voting only two years after Obama’s historic win showed that while progressive groups were busy praising the President, the base was not impressed.
Yet despite all of the above, and the President’s personnel moves designed to reposition him in the center (only the corporate media believes he ever governed from the Left), key progressive constituencies used the State of the Union address to continue cheerleading for Obama.
Consider organized labor, whose private sector numbers are at historic lows.
Unions invested heavily in the 2008 elections, and came away with no Employee Free Choice Act, no labor law reform, a progressive but invisible Labor Secretary, a two-year wage freeze for federal employees, an anti-union education agenda, no immigration reform, and a five-year domestic spending freeze.
Yet SEIU has never issued a press release critical of the President, while AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka responded to the State of the Union by issuing a joint statement
with Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue supporting “Obama’s call to create jobs and grow the U.S. economy through investment in our nation's infrastructure.”
No wonder Obama does the bare minimum for labor while coddling corporate CEO’s. The latter turned against him for sponsoring Wall Street reforms despite making huge profits, and Obama has been doing cartwheels trying to earn back their favor; meanwhile, unions unrelentingly praise Obama and get next to nothing.
That’s what I would call a failed progressive strategy.
Fear of the Right
I often hear that progressives critical of Obama are simply empowering Palin, Huckabee, Bachmann and the Republican Party. I’m told that we must rally around Obama regardless of what he does because a Republican President would be far worse.
How come progressives did not apply this defense to President Clinton? He too faced a powerful right-wing machine – yet I did not hear labor, environmentalists, and progressive organizations make the type of apologies for Clinton’s centrist-conservative policies that they routinely do for Obama.
The answer, of course, is that many progressive groups became vested in Obama as a vehicle for their agendas. Acknowledging that he is not the President they thought he would be leaves them without a “partner” in the White House, which progressives have longed for since the 1960’s.
Refusing to hold Obama accountable for squandering a national call for progressive change on the grounds that he is better than a Republican is surrender. It is also a sign that many progressives do not believe their own polling
about public support for progressive policies, and secretly believe we are a “center-right nation.”
The Ongoing Organizing Void
I wrote on October 5, 2009 that ACORN’s demise would create a void for community organizing
that would have grave implications for progressive politics. This void has disempowered progressive constituencies who might have proved a powerful grassroots counterweight to the Obama cheerleading by prominent national groups.
It appears that some of these groups are boosting Obama out of fear that their base will otherwise question their leadership’s political strategy. After you have told members that Obama is the guy who will deliver, and millions of dollars were invested in his election, it’s not easy to acknowledge that the leadership’s assessment was wrong.
Democratic politicians routinely move away from their base, and grassroots constituencies must be “feared and loathed
” in order to get them to act on their behalf. Cheerleading for Obama does not accomplish this.
Sadly, the State of the Progressive Union is that millions of Obama 2008 voters are entirely disconnected from any organized political group, and many national groups are as disconnected from their activist base as the President.
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. Shaw is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook.