On November 4, the American people by a popular majority of more than eight million votes selected as their new President a Democratic contender who had been attacked by his Republican foe as a radical who “began his campaign in the liberal left lane of politics and has never left it.”
If only. In truth, Barack Obama was never the Che Guevara in pinstripes that the rightwing attack machine conjured up. His record on Capitol Hill was never “more liberal than a Senator who calls himself a socialist [Vermont’s Bernie Sanders],” as John McCain wheezed at the last stops of a dying campaign. And he has never even been in competition for the title bestowed upon him by former Senator Fred Thompson during last summer’s Republican National Convention: “the most liberal . . . nominee to ever run for President.”
Thompson had apparently forgotten not just George McGovern but Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, all of whom sought the Presidency as more left-leaning contenders than did Obama in 2008. And, as McGovern, an able historian, himself reminds us: Franklin Roosevelt put contemporary Democrats to shame when it came to embracing and advancing radical notions.
For today’s liberals and progressives, who find themselves moving from the comfortably predictable opposition stance of the Bush-Cheney interregnum to the more challenging position of dealing with the first Democratic President elected with something akin to a mandate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, it is important to see Barack Obama for who he is and his admini-stration for what it can be. The best way to do this is not by listening to Obama’s Republican detractors-or to the lite-Republicans of the Washington Democratic establishment-but by hearing the President- elect in his own words.
After he secured the delegates required to claim the Democratic nomination, Obama found himself at a town hall meeting in suburban Atlanta, where he was grilled about whether-having run as a primary-season progressive-he was now shifting to the center.
The Senator was clearly offended by the suggestion. “Let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center or that I’m flip-flopping or this or that or the other,” he began. “You know, the people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me.”
Obama continued: “I am somebody who is no doubt progressive. I believe in a tax code that we need to make more fair. I believe in universal health care. I believe in making college affordable. I believe in paying our teachers more money. I believe in early childhood education. I believe in a whole lot of things that make me progressive.”
Those were not casually chosen words. Barack Obama knows exactly what it means to say he is a “progressive.” When he does so, he is not merely avoiding the word “liberal,” as the sillier of his rightwing critics like to claim. Obama actually understands the subtle nuances of the American left. This is a man who moved to Chicago to be part of the political moment that began with the 1983 election of leftie Congressman Harold Washington as the city’s first African American mayor, who studied the organizing techniques of Saul “Rules for Radicals” Alinsky, who worked with proudly radical labor leaders to defend basic industries and avert layoffs, who used his Harvard-minted legal skills to fight for expanded voting rights, who was mentored by civil libertarian legislator and federal judge Abner Mikva, who discussed the intricacies of Middle East policy with Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi, and who learned about single-payer health care from his old friend and neighbor Dr. Quentin Young, the longtime coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program. And, famously, Obama did not just make anti-war sounds before Iraq was invaded, he appeared at an anti-war rally in downtown Chicago with a “War Is Not an Option” sign waving at his side.
Obama knows not just the rough outlines of the left-labor-liberal-progressive agenda, but the specifics. He does not need to be presented with progressive ideas for responding appropriately to an economic downturn, to environmental and energy challenges, to global crises and democratic dysfunctions. He has, over the better part of a quarter century, spoken of, written about, and campaigned for them.
I first covered Obama a dozen years ago, when he was running for the Illinois state senate as a candidate endorsed by the New Party, the labor-left movement of the mid-1990s that declared “the social, economic, and political progress of the United States requires a democratic revolution in America-the return of power to the people.” When we spoke together at New Party events in those days, he was blunt about his desire to move the Democratic Party off the cautious center where Bill Clinton had wedged it. And when we spoke in the years that followed, as he positioned himself for a 2004 U.S. Senate run, Obama told me that he saw Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold-the lone dissenter against the Patriot Act-as the best role model in the chamber.
So why not pop the champagne corks and celebrate Obama’s nomination and election as a victory for what the late Paul Wellstone described as “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”? Because knowing the ideals and values of the left is not the same as practicing them. As a Senator, Obama did not take Feingold as a role model. In fact, they differed on essential constitutional, trade, and Presidential accountability issues, with Obama consistently taking more cautiously centrist positions. One of Obama’s first votes in the Senate was to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. Dr. Young wrote to his friend. “I told him I was disappointed in him,” the veteran campaigner for peace and social and economic justice recalled. “Rice was the embodiment of everything that was wrong with this Administration. So, he called me back and he said: ‘Why didn’t you pick up the phone and call me? Do you think Bush would ever send to the Senate a nominee for Secretary of State who I could vote for? I said: ‘You ara the constitutional lawyer. It’s about advice and consent, right? You should have denied him your consent.’ ”
Young was, of course, right. But the lesson that should be taken away from the Rice vote, and from the many disappointments that have followed it, ought not be that Obama is a hopeless case. In fact, quite the opposite. In that conversation with Young, the Senator outlined the relationship that the left ought to develop with a powerful but as yet ill-defined President.
Obama was nominated and elected in 2008 by progressives, both younger tech-savvy activists who made his candidacy an early favorite of the blogosphere and old-school liberal precinct walkers who saw in his candidacy an extension of the frustrating work of opposing all that was Bush and Cheney. The Senator won the Democratic nomination because he was the only first-tier contender who could say that he had opposed authorizing Bush to take the country to war with Iraq. In the Iowa caucuses that would define the 2008 race, those anti-war credentials, above all other factors, made the young Senator from Illinois a contender.
Similarly, as he campaigned in key states such as Wisconsin, Obama’s call for a new approach to free trade agreements and for massive infrastructure investments allowed him to secure backing from labor and liberal farm activists at critical stages in the process. The progressives who committed to Obama early on were the essential foot soldiers of his long march through the caucuses, the primaries, and the fall campaign. These activists formed a base within the campaign and the Democratic Party, centered on but not limited to the Obama team’s quasi-open website and blog, ww.MyBarackObama.com, which did not always cheerlead for the candidate. In June, when Obama broke with Feingold and other Senate progressives to support Bush’s rewrite of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Senator felt enough heat from his own and independent netroots sites that he was compelled to explain himself, making what Obama described as a “firm pledge” that he would revisit the issue as President to shore up privacy protections.
What Internet activists such as OpenLeft.com’s Matt Stoller and Firedoglake.com’s Jane Hamsher did during the FISA fight was roughly equivalent to what Obama told Dr. Young to do back in 2005: “Pick up the phone and call me.” They were undermined by a rally-round-the-candidate mentality that protected Obama during the campaign season. Yet netroots activists made themselves heard and earned a response from candidate Obama. And they can do much more with respect to President Obama. As Hamsher notes, “We can get the public engaged.”
And so they must, especially with that portion of the public that took seriously the candidate’s promise of “change we can believe in.” But to do this effectively, activists cannot wait for Obama to define the playing field. They must assume that he knows what they know. And this requires a radically different approach than the left took to Southern centrist Democratic Presidents such as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
The way to influence Obama and his Administration is to speak not so much to him as to America. Get out ahead of the new President, and of his spin-drive communications team. Highlight the right appointees and the right responses to deal with the challenges that matter most. Don’t just critique, but rather propose. Advance big ideas and organize on their behalf; identify allies in federal agencies, especially in Congress, and work with them to dial up the pressure for progress. Don’t expect Obama or his aides to do the left thing. Indeed, take a lesson from rightwing pressure groups in their dealings with Republican administrations and recognize that it is always better to build the bandwagon than to jump on board one that is crafted with the tools of compromise.
Smart groups and individuals are already at it. The United Steelworkers union has been way ahead of the curve in critiquing the financial services bailout and in working with Congressional allies such as Ohioans Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich to challenge the basic assumptions of a top-down bailout. The Laborers union has been promoting a fully developed infrastructure-investment plan that represents a smart stimulus. The American Civil Liberties Union is already prodding Obama to keep a series of promises he made during the campaign with regard to civil liberties and abuses of executive power, and providing concrete examples of how he can do so. The ACLU and other groups will be working with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee such as Feingold to assure that Obama’s Justice Department nominees are asked the right questions.
Perhaps most impressive are the moves made by the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, Physicians for a National Health Program, and Progressive Democrats of America to ensure that the option of single-payer is not forgotten as Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi establish their domestic policy priorities. To that end, sixty activists from these and allied groups met one week after Election Day at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington with Michigan Congressman John Conyers, an early Obama backer and the chief House proponent of real reform, to forge a Single-Payer Healthcare Alliance and plot specific strategies for influencing the new Administration and Congress.
The point won’t be to teach Obama about single-payer. Less than six years ago, he told the Illinois AFLCIO: “I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program. I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent of its Gross National Product on health care, cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody . . . a singlepayer health care plan, a universal health care plan. And that’s what I’d like to see. But as all of you know, we may not get there immediately. Because first we have to take back the White House, we have to take back the Senate, and we have to take back the House.”
Since then, Democrats have taken back the House, the Senate, and the White House. The man who set those prerequisites in 2003 will sit in the Oval Office in 2009. But change didn’t just come to Washington. It came to Barack Obama. His statements, his strategies, and his appointments evidence a caution born of the political and structural pressures faced by Presidential contenders and Presidents-elect. Whether the previous, more progressive Obama still exists within the man who will take the oath of office on January 20 remains to be seen. But the only way to determine if Obama really is the progressive he claimed as recently as last summer to be is to push not just Obama but the public.
Franklin Roosevelt’s example is useful here. After his election in 1932, FDR met with Sidney Hillman and other labor leaders, many of them active Socialists with whom he had worked over the past decade or more. Hillman and his allies arrived with plans they wanted the new President to implement. Roosevelt told them: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”
It is reasonable for progressives to assume that Barack Obama agrees with them on many funda-mental issues. He has said as much.
It is equally reasonable for progressives to assume that Barack Obama wants to do the right thing. But it is necessary for progressives to understand that, as with Roosevelt, they will have to make Obama do it.
John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. A co-founder of the media reform organization Free Press, Nichols is is co-author with Robert W. McChesney of Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy – from The New Press. Nichols’ latest book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism.