Posted by rflacks on:
Every liberal and progressive blogger is advising the president about strategies for change--except for those who are busy voicing their disappointment and disillusionment with him.
The strongest criticisms are about the many compromises built into the president's policies: the weakness of the financial regulation he's proposing, the refusal to support single payer health-care reform (and the seeming backing away from the 'government option'), the escalation of the Afghanistan war, the many compromises with the CIA on 'torture' issues, the failure to support gay rights, etc. Many progressive writers may grant the need for compromise and gradualism, but are upset when Obama seems to prefer accommodation and avoids aggressive confrontation with those who are against him. 'He needs to show how tough he is if he expects to prevail', is a very popular refrain.
The left critiques are valid and necessary but they run the risk of demoralizing progressive constituencies, and of feeding the cynicism now being exploited by right wing demagogues. Instead of constructing Obama as just another politician who betrays his promises and serves the powers that be, we might think about other ways of interpreting his actions that leave room for hope.
For me the central question is this: how do you make change possible when major centers of power resist it, when political structures are set up to defeat it, when the public at large is divided and cynical about reform. Leave aside the added problems that the majority of white people in the country voted against you, and that a portion of that constituency questions your legitimacy.
Let's spell this out with a bit of simplifying shorthand about the power relations Obama has to deal with: The health-care reform Obama wants threatens the insurance and pharmaceutical complex. The climate change/energy plans he wants threaten the energy industry. The military-industrial complex and the national security apparatus are interested in preserving the imperial presidency and its war making propensities. The financial complex wants government bailout but not regulation. Talking about these 'complexes' simplifies the important divisions within these sectors, but the basic point for me is that every morning the president has to take these kinds of forces into account. ON top of which is the structure of the senate--the filibuster rule, the power of conservative Democrats representing large stretches of land with almost no people living on it.
FDR and LBJ were presidents who were able to win major reform despite these sorts of big obstacles. I'm one of a legion of left-oriented historians and sociologists who believe that what made the New Deal and the Great Society reforms possible was the rising up from below of movements demanding the change, not primarily the political skills of Roosevelt and Johnson. The labor movement of the 30s and the civil rights movement of the 60s found levers of power themselves. It wasn't simply the numbers who 'marched', it was that they tore the social fabric that was sustaining the status quo. You can get a sense of that power by reading a book like Piven and Cloward's Poor People's Movements, which spells out in some detail the ways these movements were able to win some gains because of their disruptive political, social and cultural activity.
We haven't had a president till now who was so schooled in that reading of history. The best way to understand Obama, I think, is to refer to something Michelle Obama said in the early days of the campaign. She said at some point that Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.
Here's Barack Obama speaking to the AFL-CIO Pittsburgh convention last week:
These are the reforms I'm proposing. These are the reforms labor has been championing. These are the reforms the American people need. These are reforms I intend to sign into law: quality, affordable health insurance; a world-class education; good jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced; a strong labor movement. That's how we'll lift up hardworking families. That's how we'll grow our middle class. That's how we'll put opportunity within reach in the United States of America. (Applause.)
The battle for opportunity has always been fought in places like Pittsburgh, places like Pennsylvania. It was here that Pittsburgh railroad workers rose up in a great strike. It was here that Homestead steelworkers took on Pinkerton guards at Carnegie mills. (Applause.) It was here that something happened in a town called Aliquippa.
It was a tough place for workers in the 1930s -- "a benevolent dictatorship," said the local steel boss. Labor had no rights. The foreman's whim ruled the day. And the company hired workers from different lands and different races -- the better to keep them divided, it was thought at the time.
But despite threats and harassment, despite seeing organizers fired and driven out of town, these steelworkers came together -- Serb and Croat, Italian and Pole, and Irish, and Greek, and kin of Alabama slaves and sons of Pennsylvania coal miners. And they took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, securing the right to organize up and down the Ohio River Valley and all across America. (Applause.)
And I know that if America can come together like Aliquippa and rise above barriers of faith and race, and region, and party -- then we will not only make life better for steelworkers like Steve in Indiana, not only make life better for members of the AFL-CIO, but will make possible the dreams of middle-class families and make real the promise of the United States of America for everybody. (Applause.)
That's what we're fighting for. That's what this White House is committed to. That's what the AFL-CIO is committed to. (Applause.) And arm in arm, we are going to get this done.
That reference to the now obscure Aliquippa strike of 1937 intrigues me. As he suggests, it was a strike engaged in despite 20 years of efforts by Jones & Laughlin to segregate its work force by race and ethnicity. Yet 25000 workers struck and one of the most recalcitrant corporations in the land overnight agreed to bargain wit h their union and obey the federal labor laws.
I think the time is just about ripe for a new progressive movement in the streets. Health-care could be the first moment for such action. Am I wrong to imagine that hundreds of thousands might come to Washington to rally around a bill with a strong public insurance component, adequate subsidies, real regulation? Isn't it within the capacity of the labor movement, of Moveon, and even of Organize for America to convene such an action? Wouldn't it provide a needed answer to the pseudo populism that Glen Beck et al are stirring up? Instead of simply advising the President on strategy, can't we start making our own?