Posted by rflacks on:
On Barack Obama’s 50th birthday. virtually everybody to the left is moaning and /or growling furiously about the debt ceiling deal and particularly about Obama’s role in it. Since it’s the height of summer, it’s possible that few people are reading all this stuff, but I worry that the main effect is to demoralize and demobilize liberal and progressive activists:
Obama has betrayed the millions who believed his promises of change.
Obama has done this deliberately—he is ‘really’ a ‘conservative’ or a conscious lackey of the bourgeoisie who has concealed his true ideology and intention behind the rhetoric.
Or, whatever he believes, he’s a poor leader, incompetent, caving in, unable to fight against the dragons of the far right.
The Tea party is running the show and Obama is letting them. Right-wing Obama hatred we are used to—but you begin to hear it on the left.
In my fifty years of political activism, I've never seen much benefit in spreading cynicism, conspiracy and calamity. People, I think, will resist attack on their interests when they see possibility not when they feel despair. So I wonder what folks who are so focused on attacking Obama think such attack accomplishes? If you have a clue about this let me know.
So let me try to suggest a few points now getting less attention.
First—the deal is not quite the catastrophe some are describing. Obama was able to win (because of enormous p[popular pressure significant protections for social security, medicare and Medicaid benefits (which had been ‘on the table’ a few days ago). He and Pelosi have crafted a situation that will make ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy more likely. The budget cuts over the next decade include a major reduction in new Pentagon weapons development ( not long ago military spending was ‘off the table’). The budget cuts are projected over ten years, with relatively little being cut in the next year or two (and all these caps and cuts can be reversed by the next congress). The most disturbing cuts are likely to be in environmental protection and there may certainly be other serious damage to necessary programs.
A lot of the hand-wringing is about the super congress committee to be appointed. There’s every reason to be worried about that (apart from its undemocratic nature)—and I won’t go into all the wonkery that can be deployed on this topic. Suffice to say, however, that I’m not persuaded that the results of that committee are a done deal or that the Republicans will be able to control it.
Now I am not saying the overall situation isn't dire. It is.
First of all, the economy now seems headed for a recessionary dip. The focus on deficits makes it hard to see how Obama and the Democrats can propose any agenda that will be job creating. As I've said before, the most promising single idea is the ‘infrastructure bank’ and related schemes for merging private and public investment. This is an idea that is very appealing to a lot of business types and to the labor unions/. Maybe it’s now on the table again in a real way—and it wouldn't be a deficit creating measure. There will be some other things pushed now that are needed—extending unemployment comp and maybe tax credits for job creating firms.
I don’t think that criticisms of Obama’s capacities as a leader, his interest in reaching out to business elites and moderate Republicans have much justification. I would like to see the case made that in fact his leadership[ has been exceptional in certain respects. He led the effort to pass health care (and compromised to do it in much the way that FDR did to get social security passed ) He got a stimulus passed (again compromised). Financial reform, the auto company takeover, DADT –all come to mind as achievements against considerable odds. In foreign policy, I think he should be credited with helping to destroy the neo-conservative version of empire that seemed so dominant five years ago. I don’t think liberal critics are willing to understand that Obama’s pragmatic, strategic, and consensus oriented leadership style might well be a better way for him to govern than the outspoken, bold confrontational posture they claim to want. And I really despise the ‘betrayal’ line. He has betrayed less in terms of principle than did FDR (who sacrificed African American interests to pass social security and the Wagner Act), Truman, whose loyalty program helped institute McCarthyism, Kennedy who ramped up the nuclear arms race, LBJ—Vietnam, and Clinton who abolished ‘welfare as we know it’. The lesson of history for progressives in the US and everywhere else in the world is NOT EVER to count on national leaders to lead by principle and moral concern. ON the other hand, a left that hopes to achieve practical policy has to figure out how to use the promises and rhetoric of national leaders as leverage. And that means figuring out how to be critical without destroying the legitimacy of leaders whose promises offer hope for the people.
In my last posting I suggested the value of having a strong voice of labor like AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka run in some state primaries as a way of publicly advancing a far reaching jobs agenda and providing a vehicle for sending a message to Washington while hoping to energize the ‘base’ for 2012. Some readers said they really liked the idea. Some argued that Trumka would never do it (given the likelihood that his vote would be weak rather than strong and his access would then be destroyed)—and suggested alternatives (like Michael Moore).
I was NOT proposing a candidate run as an alternative to Obama and am opposed to that kind of effort. One reader who got the point that I was talking more about theater than power suggested :
Bethe Real Obama. Bethe would quote Obama’s earlier statements and comments and promise to deliver on them and take them seriously. A lot of people would be willing to vote for Bethe, knowing that it was a way of sending a message. There could also be rallies in favor of Bethe. I’m not sure if there would be a way of getting Bethe on the ballot but even a sizable write-in campaign might be a way of getting the message across.
The Obamans think they can win the presidential election next year because the GOP candidate will be patently awful and independents and even some Republicans will prefer him. Maybe so—but this begs the question—what about congress? If the working people who are being abandoned by the president’s political direction—the public workers being laid off in droves, the huge numbers of young people of every educational level who are under or unemployed, the millions of homeowners underwater, the hundreds of thousands whose necessary services are being cut, are demoralized because no one is addressing their needs, rights and interests, we will end up with an even worse Congress than we now have. Obama’s pragmatism leads him to various devil’s bargains. Instead of impatiently dismissing the anxieties and challenges coming from the left, he needs to address them—and we need him to do so.
Positive straws in the wind? The very promising situation apparently in the Wisconsin recall elections coming up in the next couple of weeks—victories there will send a message. The outspokenness of Trumka and some other labor leaders—especially Roseanne Demoro of the National Nurses Union. Inspiring moments like the national teachers rally the other day where Matt Damon so beautifully challenged Obama’s unholy alliance with rightwing educational ‘reform’. What else do you know about?