Magazine article New Internationalist

Obama's Legacy Falls Short on Organizing

Magazine article New Internationalist

Obama's Legacy Falls Short on Organizing

Article excerpt

In an eloquent farewell speech given 10 days before he leftoffice, US President Barack Obama challenged supporters: 'If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing.'

For many US progressives, the exhortation brought back the feelings of hope and excitement that Obama once evoked. Back in 2008, the prospect of electing a president with a background in community organizing was a thrilling one.

Working on Chicago's South Side in the 1980s, Obama trained in the organizing lineage of Saul Alinsky, bringing together publichousing residents to fight for community improvements. The future president often claimed to have been shaped by the experience, and in some of his strongest rhetorical moments he evoked the power of social movements to force change.

But taking seriously the idea of Obama as an organizer creates a demanding standard for evaluating his legacy. We must ask: are social movements stronger at the end of his tenure than they were at the beginning?

Unfortunately, by this measure, his presidency falls short.

Compared with the unfolding horror of the Trump administration, there is much to make us already feel nostalgic. Progressives taking stock of Obama's accomplishments have found both positives, including the extension of health coverage to millions and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and negatives: the continuation of extralegal assassination via drone strike and the failure seriously to rein in Wall Street power when finance was most vulnerable. But whatever criticisms we have, the overall thrust of his public policy was infinitely preferable to what we are seeing with Republicans in control.

But if we use the lens of organizing to evaluate success or failure, it leads to a tougher reckoning of Obama's time in office.

The fortunes of the labour movement provide a critical bellwether. Under Obama, the percentage of the workforce in unions continued a decades-long decline, falling from 12.4 per cent to 11.1 per cent. This is distressing because organized labour remains the most important institutionalized power bloc on the American left.

Unfortunately, the politicians who seem most attuned to the vital role of unions are Republicans, who move ruthlessly to curtail union power whenever they can. …

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