Since the President’s budget speech last week, Democrats have renewed faith in Obama’s progressive commitments. “Undoubtedly, he rediscovered his voice,” said frequent Obama critic Robert B. Reich. “Hopefully, this will be his campaign voice.” Thea Lee of the AFL-CIO also told the New York Times
, “the rhetoric of the speech was fabulous. It was a strong speech; it was a principled speech.” Reich, Lee and other progressives were particularly pleased by the President’s pledge to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy that he agreed to extend last December. Surprisingly few asked why the circumstances that led to his December deal---Republican refusal to extend unemployment benefits---won’t be repeated in 2012. Fortunately, some progressive leaders are demanding actions, not words. Congressman Luis Gutierrez said on April 16 that he could not commit
to President Barack Obama in 2012 if he doesn't address his administration’s record deportations and failure to help students who would be covered by the Dream Act. Gutierrez’s more astute understanding of holding Obama politically accountable should become a model.
It has been many months since so many progressive commentators and groups have expressed such strong confidence in President Barack Obama. And best of all for the President, this only required that he give another progressive populist speech, as opposed to regaining trust through concrete actions.
Progressives offered a stark contrast to the Tea Party response to the budget deal. Whereas progressive Democrats accepted the steep cuts because Obama’s speech assured them that he knew where to draw the line, conservatives criticized Republicans for not getting everything they wanted---- even though the cuts exceeded nearly everyone's expectations.
The Republican base looks at the actions of those they elect; far too many progressives are satisfied with words.
Obama in Campaign Mode
I was struck how Robert Reich’s approving quote above expresses hope that Obama’s budget speech would be his “campaign voice,” rather than the voice of his governance.
Obama’s history includes many great speeches advocating for “change we can believe in,” but as even his most fervid admirers acknowledge, his governance has been quite different.
Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary, Inside Job
, juxtaposes Obama speaking about his commitment to punish those responsible for the nation’s financial crisis with his appointments of some of those very same individuals. It is a powerful indictment, but one that the renewed confidence generated by Obama’s budget speech shows has not struck a chord even with most progressives.
Obama’s return to populist themes coincided with the official launching of his 2012 re-election campaign. It was surely a coincidence, but Obama’s April 4 announcement created competing media coverage that day for organized labor’s multi-state ‘We Are One’ - Nationwide Day of Action and Solidarity.
But labor didn’t complain. Union leaders are so grateful to have a President who believes in collective bargaining that Obama does not have to push labor law reform or anything else to generate their re-election support; he can also support free trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea after implying in his 2008 campaign that he opposed such pacts.
Gutierrez Strikes Different Path
At the UNITE HERE national convention in late June 2009, Illinois Congressmember Luis Gutierrez announced
that he expected comprehensive immigration reform by Christmas. Gutierrez was Obama’s point man on immigration reform, and said he had commitments from the President, Speaker Pelosi, and Senate leader Reid to enact this vital measure in 2009.
Gutierrez and other immigrants’ rights measures never got their expected presidential leadership on the issue in 2009, and Obama did not expend the necessary political capital to enact the Dream Act in December 2010. But unlike many other progressive constituencies, immigrant rights activists are no longer satisfied with Obama’s words and are demanding action.
That’s why Gutierrez conditioned his support for Obama’s re-election campaign on action on issues like increased deportations, which cannot be blamed on Republicans. The President could declare a moratorium tomorrow on deportations of students who would be covered by the Dream Act, but has failed to act.
New census data reveals that Latinos are now the largest minority group
in 191 of the 366 leading metro areas, with their voting power no longer confined to California and the Southwest. William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, told the Associate Press that Latinos are “now evident in all parts of the country - in large and small metropolitan areas, in the Snowbelt [northern states] and in the Sunbelt [southern states]."
Gutierrez and his immigrant rights allies recognize that the Latino base is unhappy with Obama’s lack of progress on their core issues, and are particularly angry over increased deportations from a president whose 2008 campaign criticized Bush Administration deportation policies.
While Latinos remain supportive of Obama---a conclusion facilitated by Republicans becoming even more anti-immigrant---Gutierrez recognizes that the base will not mobilize for Obama and other Democrats in 2012 unless they start seeing some concrete results.
Talk is cheap when facing deportation and the break-up of families. By demanding action rather than words, Gutierrez sends a powerful message to fellow activists that election victories mean little without political accountability.
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century
, as well as The Activist’s Handbook