I’m busy. We don’t want somebody sitting back saying you’re not holding the mop the right way.
Why don’t you grab a mop? Why don’t you help clean up?
“You’re not mopping fast enough.”
“That’s a socialist mop.”
Grab a mop! Let’s get to work. ~~President Barak Obama
The American people by a popular majority of more than eight million votes selected as their President a candidate who had been attacked by his Republican foe as a radical who “began his campaign in the liberal left lane of politics and has never left it.”
If only. In truth, Barack Obama was never the Mao in pinstripes that the rightwing attack machine conjured up. His record on Capitol Hill was never “more liberal than a Senator who calls himself a socialist [Vermont’s Bernie Sanders],” as John McCain wheezed at the last stops of a dying campaign. And he has never even been in competition for the title bestowed upon him by former Senator Fred Thompson during last summer’s Republican National Convention: “the most liberal . . . nominee to ever run for President.”
Thompson had apparently forgotten not just George McGovern but Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, all of whom sought the Presidency as more left-leaning contenders than did Obama in 2008. And, as McGovern, an able historian, himself reminds us: Franklin Roosevelt put contemporary Democrats to shame when it came to embracing and advancing radical notions.
For we Liberals and Progressives, who find ourselves moving from the easy opposition stance of the Bush-Cheney horror to the more challenging position of dealing with the first Democratic President elected with something akin to a mandate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, it is important to see Barack Obama for who he is and his administration for what it can be. The best way to do this is by hearing the President in his own words.
After he secured the delegates required to claim the Democratic nomination, Obama found himself at a town hall meeting in suburban Atlanta, where he was grilled about whether having run as a primary season Progressive he was now shifting to the center.
The Senator was clearly offended by the suggestion.
“Let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center or that I’m flip-flopping or this or that or the other,” he began. “You know, the people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me.”
“I am somebody who is no doubt Progressive. I believe in a tax code that we need to make more fair. I believe in universal health care. I believe in making college affordable. I believe in paying our teachers more money. I believe in early childhood education. I believe in a whole lot of things that make me progressive.”
I believe him. Those were not casually chosen words. Barack Obama knows exactly what it means to say he is a “Progressive,” and he actually understands the subtle nuances of the American left. This is a man who moved to Chicago to be part of the political moment that began with the 1983 election of leftie Congressman Harold Washington as the city’s first African American mayor, who studied the organizing techniques of Saul “Rules for Radicals” Alinsky, who worked with proudly radical labor leaders to defend basic industries and avert layoffs, who used his Harvard-educated legal skills to fight for expanded voting rights, who was mentored by civil libertarian legislator and federal judge Abner Mikva, who discussed the intricacies of Middle East policy with Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi, and who learned about single-payer health care from his old friend and neighbor Dr. Quentin Young, the longtime coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program. And, famously, Obama did not just make anti-war sounds before Iraq was invaded, he appeared at an anti-war rally in downtown Chicago with a “War Is Not an Option” sign waving at his side.
Barack Obama ran for the Illinois state senate as a candidate endorsed by the New Party, the labor-left movement of the mid-1990s that declared “the social, economic, and political progress of the United States requires a democratic revolution in America-the return of power to the people.” In those days, he was blunt about his desire to move the Democratic Party off the cautious center where Bill Clinton had wedged it. When he positioned himself for a 2004 U.S. Senate run, Obama said that he saw Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold-the lone dissenter against the Patriot Act-as the best role model in the chamber.
I celebrated Obama’s election as a victory for what the late Paul Wellstone described as “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” But knowing the ideals and values of the left is not the same as practicing them. As a Senator, Obama did not take Feingold as a role model. In fact, they differed on essential constitutional, trade, and Presidential accountability issues, with Obama consistently taking more cautiously Centrist positions. One of Obama’s first votes in the Senate was to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. Dr. Young wrote to his friend. “I told him I was disappointed in him,” the veteran campaigner for peace and social and economic justice recalled. “Rice was the embodiment of everything that was wrong with this Administration. So, he called me back and he said: ‘Why didn’t you pick up the phone and call me? Do you think Bush would ever send to the Senate a nominee for Secretary of State who I could vote for? I said: ‘You are the constitutional lawyer. It’s about advice and consent, right? You should have denied him your consent.’ ”
The lesson that should be taken away from the Rice vote, and from the disappointments that have followed it, ought not be that Obama is a hopeless case. In fact, quite the opposite. In that conversation with Young, Senator Obama outlined the relationship that the left ought to develop with President Obama.
Obama was nominated and elected in 2008 by Independents and by Progressives, both younger tech-savvy activists who made his candidacy an early favorite of the blogosphere and old-school liberal precinct walkers like me. The Senator won the Democratic nomination because he was the only first-tier contender who could say that he had opposed authorizing Bush to take the country to war with Iraq. In the Iowa caucuses that would define the 2008 race, those anti-war credentials, above all other factors, made the young Senator from Illinois a contender.
Similarly, as he campaigned in key states such as Wisconsin, Obama’s call for a new approach to free trade agreements and for massive infrastructure investments allowed him to secure backing from labor and liberal farm activists at critical stages in the process. The Progressives who committed to Obama early on were the essential foot soldiers of his long march through the caucuses, the primaries, and the fall campaign. These activists formed a base within the campaign and the Democratic Party, centered on –but not limited to –the Obama team’s open website and blog, www.MyBarackObama.com, which did not always cheerlead for the candidate. In June, when Obama broke with Feingold and other Senate Progressives to support Bush’s rewrite of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the Senator felt enough heat from his own and independent netroots sites that he was compelled to explain himself, making what Obama described as a “firm pledge” that he would revisit the issue as President to shore up privacy protections.
What Internet activists such as OpenLeft.com’s Matt Stoller did during the FISA fight was roughly equivalent to what Obama told Dr. Young to do back in 2005: “Pick up the phone and call me.” Netroots activists made themselves heard and earned a response from then-candidate Obama. And they can do much more with respect to President Obama. The netroots can get the public engaged, but instead, they have made the public demoralized. Instead of providing suggestions, they have only complained. They have been reactive and not proactive.
One way to influence Obama and his Administration is to speak– not so much to him– as to America. Progressives need to get out ahead of the President. Highlight the right appointees and the right responses to deal with the challenges that matter most. Advance big ideas and organize on their behalf; identify allies in federal agencies, especially in Congress, and work with them to dial up the pressure for progress. I am not seeing much of that at all—but I am seeing a daily barrage of criticism. I am not seeing any discussion of what has been accomplished or what we specifically want accomplished. Indeed, we could take a lesson from rightwing pressure groups in their dealings with Republican administrations and recognize that it is always better to build the bandwagon than to jump on board one that is crafted with the tools of compromise. Don’t just critique, but rather propose.
Sixty activists from The California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, Physicians for a National Health Program, and Progressive Democrats of America and allied groups met one week after Election Day at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington with Michigan Congressman John Conyers, an early Obama backer and the chief House proponent of real reform, to forge a Single-Payer Healthcare Alliance and plot specific strategies for influencing the new Administration and Congress.
The point wasn’t to teach Obama about single-payer. Seven years ago, he told the Illinois AFLCIO: “I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program. I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent of its Gross National Product on health care, cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody . . . a singlepayer health care plan, a universal health care plan. And that’s what I’d like to see. But as all of you know, we may not get there immediately. Because first we have to take back the White House, we have to take back the Senate, and we have to take back the House.”
Since then, Democrats have taken back the House, the Senate, and the White House, but perhaps in name only. We have learned since the election that too many who call themselves Democrats are only Democrats on some issues. Single-payer was never on the table, and in retrospect, I can see why not. The President’s statements, his strategies, and his appointments evidence a caution born of the political and structural pressures faced by every President. Whether the previous, more progressive Obama still exists remains to be seen. I still believe it does. But the only way to determine if Obama really is the Progressive he claimed in 2008 to be is to push not just Obama, but the public and the media. I am frustrated every day when I watch the political pundits –and not only those on the Right—claim that the public is opposed to Health Care Reform. Why do they think Obama won? It was the central item of his agenda!
The often quoted example of Franklin Roosevelt is still good to remember. After his election in 1932, FDR met with Sidney Hillman and other labor leaders, many of them active Socialists with whom he had worked over the past decade or more. Hillman and his allies arrived with plans they wanted the new President to implement. Roosevelt told them: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”
It is reasonable for Progressives to assume that Barack Obama agrees with them on many fundamental issues. He has said as much. It is equally reasonable for Progressives to assume that Barack Obama wants to do the right thing. But it is necessary for Progressives to understand that, as with Roosevelt, they will have to make Obama do it.
I have never worked so hard as a citizen to get what I voted for. That’s fine; this is the new reality. I can’t say how much difference the involvement of Progressive activists has made, because it is impossible to prove a negative. Where would we be if we’d never emailed and called our representatives? I believe HCR would have died last August. I believe there might not be a second stimulus. I think financial reforms would be forgotten–as well as a host of other mopping chores we still need to accomplish. Congress is cowardly and lazy, and if Progressives don’t push, be certain the Right will win. To paraphrase Roy Scheider’s character in the movie Jaws, “We’re gonna need a bigger mop.”