After the 2010 Elections: Will Obama Stop Betraying His Progressive Base?

By Lerner, Michael | Tikkun, November/December 2010 | Go to article overview

After the 2010 Elections: Will Obama Stop Betraying His Progressive Base?


Lerner, Michael, Tikkun


SOMETIME IN MID-SEPTEMBER 2010, PRESIDENT Obama suddenly discovered that twenty months of governing by capitulation to the very mainstream ideas he campaigned against in 2008 was a losing strategy. But instead of acknowledging his errors, he acted as though his liberal and progressive base were betraying him.

like most progressive activists who supported Barack Obama's campaign, I understood that a president is limited in what she or he can accomplish in reducing the power of America's economic and political elites. But what a president can do is challenge the ideas of the powerful and rally those who have become aware both that the system is destructive to the future of the planet and that there is an alternative- a possibility of constructing lives with a sense of meaning beyond the accumulation of money and things.

In frantic activity before the November 2010 midterm election, President Obama traveled the country seeking to rebuild the enthusiasm he generated in 2008, but he seemed clueless as to why it was not there. The Democrats in Congress who followed his lead seemed similarly clueless: they tried to blame our lack of enthusiasm on their inability to pass the legislation that we (their political base) wanted- a desire that they dismissed as unreasonable. Even a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic president could not, they suggested, overcome the resistance of the Republican Party and the powerful institutional constraints that have been built up over many decades. Then they reminded us that a Republican Congress would certainly make things worse.

The reason progressives are upset with Obama and the Dems is not that we held a naive belief about how much he or the Democratic Congress could accomplish, given the fact that the Democratic majority in Congress was in fact filled with corporateoriented "centrists." We knew the limitations of this reality- a reality that was created by Rahm Emanuel and Nancy Pelosi, whose supposedly brilliant strategy in 2006 of backing the most conservative possible candidates in Democratic primaries in "swing districts" worked in the sense of giving the Democrats formal control of the House. Emanuel and Pelosi were more interested in securing political power than in changing the direction of the country. Not trusting the growing anti-war sentiment in 2006, they supported candidates who were ideologically pro-business and pro-war, constructing a Democratic majority in Congress that would back neither anti-war efforts nor the pro-working-andmiddle-class measures that Democrats had promised.

By late 2007, liberals and progressives were deeply disturbed that, after the Democratic sweep of Congress in 2006, Congress continued to fund the war in Iraq despite overwhelming popular opposition. So when Obama entered the primaries, he created his base of support in part by fostering the impression that he would challenge the warmakers and in part by speaking against the procorporate and pro-Wall Street ethos of the Bush administration. His famous speech on racism, in which he distinguished himself from his lefty preacher in Chicago, was understood by most progressives to mean he'd champion the interests of Blacks but also of whites, and he'd do that by avoiding the destructive "political correctness" rhetoric that has isolated so many progressives in the past thirty years, while still maintaining a progressive core to his policies. So when he challenged the selfishness and materialism on Wall Street and explicitly raised everyone's hopes by making "change" the theme of his campaign, progressives reasonably felt we had a candidate who would be willing to speak truth to power.

So what happened? First, he appointed Emanuel as his Chief of Staff and surrounded himself with a White House crew that lacked representatives from the social change movements that brought him electoral success (and this remains true even with the departure of Emanuel and Summers).

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