By Michael Albert at Nov 24, 2008
I have encountered many progressives who say, hey, why not give Obama a chance. He hasn't even taken office yet. Why are so many lefties railing at him?
In response to this stance, particularly as it was offered in the first week after the election, I wrote three essays trying to show what it would look like if Obama were to be as change-oriented as strong progressive advocates were expecting. I said, okay, if people believe Obama is about serious change, what does that mean? What would real change look like?
One essay was a hypothetical interview with Obama one year from inauguration. It is online at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/19345. I enjoyed writing that piece and envisioning a really progressive and even radical electoral project was useful, I think, even if the features are unlikely to be actualized this time around. But mostly I put words in Obama's mouth to display a possible future against which people could measure Obama's actual deeds. The second essay was available on ZNet right after the election, and the third is a Z Magazine essay, written about a week later, to appear in the December issue. Both of these essays had the same intent as the longer interview, to indicate what we might look for to assess where Obama is headed.
More time has now passed, and I fear by now there is only one teeny tiny sense in which the "hands off Obama" stance remains credible. Suppose someone thought Obama would be just another President, who, because of the country's condition, the popular mood, and/or his own predilections, might do just a little more than what Hilary Clinton or virtually any other Democrat or even all but the more fundamentalist Republicans would do. In that case, I can see such a person saying, wait up on the criticism. Nothing so far warrants indicates Obama is going to fall short of (very modest) expectations. But moderately redressing insanity isn't what progressive Obama supporters meant by "change we can believe in."
So for those who worked for Obama, or voted for Obama, or even just weeped joyously over his election not only because it was momentous having a Black President, and not only because it meant waving goodbye to Bush and Company and might auger the end of the proto fascist fundamentalist political bloc in the U.S, but also in expectation that Obama would seriously advocate for the poor, the weak, and the disenfranchised, and even programmatically attain some real justice, equity, participation, and peace - well, sadly, we have already seen enough to have grave doubts about all that happening.
And having such doubts, one emerging response - give the guy a chance, essentially because he is Black, seems to me to be quite the opposite of what makes sense, even regarding him personally, much less regarding him as President.
That is, just to clear the air a bit, when some asshole who knows only cocktail parties, gray flannel suits, and at best trickle down paternalism, wins office, and that lowlife then doesn't change his stripes, let's say Bush, for example, the forthcoming despicable outcomes don't mark him as any worse of a person than anyone previously thought him to be. But when someone who has known poverty, known oppression, pounded doors on behalf of homeless tenants, and heard and seemingly even understood and probably at times echoed compelling analyses of society takes office, let's say Obama, and that person even has huge numbers of people ready to push like hell for whatever liberating things he might buck up against corporate power to try to do - and when he then defuses all that potential and does essentially nothing more than the next white male politico would have done - well, don't tell me to judge him less harshly, less aggressively, less emotively, than I would judge some psychotic Republican maniac or some button down liberal poseur. I actually find it more, not less, disgraceful. In short, there is a real opportunity at hand, and if Obama squanders it, if he literally refuses to move forward and at best only takes steps sideways, well, that is certainly not worthy of a period of grace.
So the question becomes, what has Obama done in his admittedly brief first three weeks, that renders it wise to reel in patience and offer major criticism? What has Obama done that should be causing his huge army of volunteers to show up at the inauguration mostly waving placards, banners and flags demanding action in accord with expectations?
Well, first, Obama hasn't called upon that potential army or activists, his most ardent volunteers and supporters, to take to the streets and show that the war needs to be ended. He hasn't asked his grass roots supporters who he admitted won him the election - to assemble a list of programmatic desires and aims and an accompanying time table that he would be beholden too. He hasn't asked his supporters who would be good choices they would like for his cabinet and then acted on his supporters' grass roots wisdom. That would auger change. That would be actual democracy.
No, for advice, for support, to pay back debts, and to find allies, Obama has gone, as always before in the history of the American Presidency, to the major investors in his campaign, to the major players in society - to corporate and political elites of familiar vintage. This is not because there is a law of nature that requires Obama to behave thusly. He could choose a different path. But so far, he hasn't.
In fact, Obama isn't even just bringing us new wine in old bottles. That might be an understandable compromise with the dictates of persistent past reality and needing to navigate it, and in that sense it could be a step in a good direction. But new wine in old bottles would mean choosing at least some progressives (new wine) for the Cabinet and the West Wing. We might be able to alibi that Obama wasn't yet creating new posts, if he was at least welcoming new people. We might be able to alibi that he wasn't already creating new social relations of governance, if he were at least putting in place people who would later work on such agendas. But no - so far, let's be honest, Obama has given us old wine in old bottles, nothing more.
Those who expected, hoped, or even just prayed against all odds for real change, should be either impatiently waiting on a miracle contrary to all accumulating evidence, or gearing up for struggle. And as long as the first stance leads promptly to the second stance, it doesn't really matter much which os those two mindsets people are now in. What does matter, a lot, is that we all are clear about where to go in January and thereafter, supposing that the chimes of freedom don't start spontaneously swaying at least a little bit, if not ringing, by then.
What would be horribly bad, in other words, is if people were to put Obama loyalty above reason and passionate desire. What would be horribly bad is if people were to reel in their hopes and reel in their aims and desires, so as to keep smiling about and celebrating Obama despite his not delivering. Discounting our own hopes, dreams, and insights to remain on a bandwagon with no worthy destination will produce only incredible poverty of mind and spirit. It will be wickedly contrary to attaining change.
If Obama doesn't place at least a couple of serious progressives in office soon, if he doesn't make clear how auto and other bailouts are going to yield progressive new outcomes rather than, at best, taking us back to business as usual, if he doesn't look to taxes for redistribution as well as for budgeting, if he doesn't take a knife to the Pentagon, if he doesn't make clear that we are really getting out of Iraq and we are not going into Afghanistan and even Pakistan, if he doesn't reverse course in Latin America even learning from the profoundly exciting experiments under way there, if he doesn't go at health care with surgery and not placebos, if he doesn't take some new concerns like incredible domestic illiteracy or crumbling infrastructure and rampant homelessness seriously, if he doesn't roll back markets with serious regulations that aim to protect and then enhance labor's power as well as promoting ecological sanity, and if he doesn't urge his supporters to go out and agitate for these and for other such programs and to also systematically tell him what they want him to do, rather than only vice versa, then Obama is no more worthy of a honeymoon, much less of support, than any other President that toadies to power and wealth, and arguably less so, given the hypocrisy it would reveal.
If typical elitest program is the result of this election, and yes, even the revelation of it for those who will be taken by surprise, it will be momentarily profoundly depressing, no doubt, but it should not yield continuing depression, nor should it yield escalated cynicism, or even chaotic anger. On the contrary, we should be elated and invigorated, as so many people were on election night but now also angry and focussed. Over the past year and half, popular efforts, even though sorely saddled with baggage from the past, elected a Black man President of the U.S. Read that again. Think about it. And now imagine what popular efforts could accomplish, if they were unsaddled and galloping full bore for real change.
The response if we soon definitively and irretrievably discover, as I fear we will, that we have no more than what has been overwhelmingly evident all along, which is that under the surface Obama is just another President - should not be depression or cynicism, but instead elation and energy. It should not be passivity that feeds and is fed by infighting, but activity that generates and is fueled by new organization and program. The U.S. is poised for change. We have to keep on pushing, better and more systematically and energetically than ever, to make it real.