Let’s Be Clear About Obama

Let’s Be Clear About Obama



There are some interesting conversations and debates underway atthenation.com (see especially Chris Hayes at Capitolism, "Left Out")and in the progressive blogosphere (see Glenn Greenwald, Jane Hamsher, Digby and David Sirota about why Obama has so few progressives among his cabinet picks.) It’s worth checking them out.



I think that we progressives need to be as clear-eyed, tough and pragmatic about Obama as he is about us.



President-elect Obama is a centrist at a time when centrism means energy independence and green jobs and universal health care and massive economic stimulus programs and government intervention in the economy. He is a pragmatist at a moment when pragmatism and the scale of our financial crisis compel him to adopt bold policies. He is a cautious leader at a time when, to paraphrase New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, caution is the new risky.The great traumas of our day do not allow for cautious steps or responses.



At 143 years old ( that’s the The Nation‘s age, not mine), welike a little bit of history with our politics. And while Lincoln’s way of picking a cabinet frames this transition moment, it’s worth remembering another template for governing. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was compelled to become a bolder and, yes, more progressive President (if progressive means ensuring that the actual conditions of peoples lives improve through government acts) as a result of the strategically placed mobilization and pressure of organizedmovements.



That history makes me think that this is the moment for progressives to avoid falling into either of two extremes –reflexively defensive or reflexively critical. We’d be wiser and more effective if we followed the advice of one of The Nation‘s valued editorial board members who shared thoughts with the Board at our meeting last Friday, November 21.




1. It will take large scale, organized movements to win transformative change. There is no civil rights legislation without the movement, no New Deal without the unions and the unemployed councils, no end to slavery without the abolitionists. In our era, this will need to play out at two levels: district-by-district and state-by-state organizing to get us to the 218 and sixty votes necessary to pass any major legislation; and the movement energy that can create public will, a new narrative and move the elites in DC to shift from orthodoxy. The energy in the country needs to be converted into real organization.





2. We need to be able to play inside and outside politics at the same time. I think this will be challenging for those of us schooled in the habits of pure opposition and protest. We need to make an effort to engage the new Administration and Congress constructively, even as we push without apology for solutions at a scale necessary to deliver. This is in the interest of the Democratic Party–which rode the wave of a new coalition of African Americans, Latinos, young people, women, etc–but they have been beaten down by conservative attacks and the natural impulse will be caution and hiding behind desks.





3. Progressives need to stick up especially forcefully for the most vulnerable parts of the coalition–poor people, immigrants, etc–those who got almost no mention during the election and will be most likely to be left off the bus.



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