Moving Obama

Moving Obama

Progressives need to be as clear-eyed, tough and pragmatic about Obama as he is about us.


There are some heated conversations under way in the progressive blogosphere, including some at, in which our own writers as well as people like Glenn Greenwald, Jane Hamsher, David Sirota and Digby are debating why Barack Obama has so far appointed few progressives to his cabinet. 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 healthcare 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, cautious 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), we like a little bit of history with our politics. And while Lincoln’s way of picking a cabinet has seized the public imagination during this transition, it’s worth remembering another president’s 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 people’s lives improve through government acts) as a result of the strategic mobilization and pressure of organized movements.

That history makes me think that progressives must avoid falling into either of two extremes–reflexively defensive or reflexively critical. We’ll be wiser and more effective if we follow the advice of a Nation editorial board member, who shared these thoughts at our recent meeting:

1. It will take large-scale organized movements to win transformative change. There would have been 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 have to play out in two ways: organizing district by district and state by state to get us to the 218 (House) and sixty (Senate) votes necessary to pass major legislation; and harnessing the movement energy that can create a new narrative and thus move the elites in Washington to shift away from failed free-market orthodoxies.

2. We need to be able to play inside and outside politics at the same time. 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 on 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 and others. But the party has been beaten down by conservative attacks, so the natural impulse will be caution.

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

As a former community organizer, Obama has spoken of how “real change comes from the bottom up.” It comes about by “imagining and then fighting for and then working for–struggling for–what did not seem possible before.” That is the charge we should embrace. Let’s mobilize to achieve what “did not seem possible before.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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