Ever since his strong speech on jobs, many Democrats believe they are finally seeing the Barack Obama they thought they elected in 2008. Obama insists he will veto any deficit-reduction measure that does not raise taxes on the rich, and he is using 2008-style rhetoric that Republicans denounce as “class warfare.” This desire to believe that Obama is a fighter for real change is understandable, particularly as the prospect of a Rick Perry presidency looms. Yet after all that has occurred, it is disappointing that the case for the new, fighting Obama is based entirely on speeches, not actions. For his deeds have not changed. For example, as schools and libraries close due to lack of funds, Obama continues to spend billions on a fruitless war in Afghanistan. And it was this very month that he reversed EPA smog regulations
. His Administration is still led by political insiders and opponents of real change. I understand the perils of a Perry presidency, but what concrete actions is Obama taking to get millions of disappointed voters back on his side?
In Michael Kazin’s September 25 New York Times piece
, “Whatever Happened to the American Left, ” he makes the common sense observation that progressives should not “bet their future on politicians” but should instead “fashion their own institutions – unions, women’s groups, community and immigrant centers and a witty, anti-authoritarian press” – that brought past success. But today’s progressive institutions are weaker than in the past, and remain devoted to a president who has weakened rather than boosted their fortunes.
Afghanistan v. Funding Human Needs
If Obama were really committed to showing that he backs real change he could start by withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. That would certainly send the type of people-first message that Americans long to hear.
Yet the emails I get from progressive groups strongly backing Obama – SEIU, Move-On, Democracy for America to name but a few – rarely mention the costly war. These groups would be all over this deplorable budget priority if a Republican were President, but Obama gets a pass.
Why? The most common explanation I’ve heard is that Obama won’t care about progressive criticism of Afghanistan, so there’s no point fighting with him on the issue.
That’s a great recipe for disempowerment. And one that progressives never found acceptable when an uncaring George W. Bush was in the White House.
I think voters would respond very positively to an Obama speech announcing a pullout from Afghanistan and a redirection of the funds to job creation at home. Yet if Obama’s own base is not pressuring him on this, he’ll just stay the course.
Obama’s Budget Priorities
It’s great that Obama vows to veto any deficit-reduction deal that cuts Medicare without taxing the rich. But why are progressives excited about a strategy that involves cutting Medicare?
There’s no way candidate Obama would have defeated Hilary Clinton by promoting Medicare cuts. And the money saved by ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy was supposed to go toward education, transit, housing, the arts and other human needs, not as an offset for health care cuts.
It’s astonishing how many progressives forget that Obama’s 2010 State of the Union promoted deficit reduction, including a three year spending freeze on the discretionary programs that voters in 2008 thought he would increase. This speech was given while Democrats still maintained overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate.
Are many progressives really so scared of Obama losing in 2012 that they are willing to abandon their own priorities and principles? Never before have elements of the United States left been bought off so cheaply, in this case promoting the President in exchange for access, meetings, and speeches rather than any concrete results.
What happened to the American Left? It lost confidence in its power after electing a President whose commitment to real change did not last much past Election Day.
The Obama of 2008 cannot return because subsequent events showed he never existed. And recognizing this is the first step toward rebuilding progressive power.
Randy Shaw’s most recent book is Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.