As President Obama quietly watches Senators undermine health care reform, redirects over $30 billion annually from domestic programs to expand the Afghanistan war, and sounds like the Concord Coalition in prioritizing deficit reduction over job creation, we hear little activist protest. Nor have activists publicly mobilized in response to Obama’s caving in to anti-democratic forces in Honduras, his astonishingly low number of judicial and U.S. Attorney appointments, his failure to secure key appointments at the Department of Labor, and his diversion from the progressive agenda on other critical issues. While many compile long lists of Obama accomplishments that they believe reflect an extraordinary first year, such cataloging of signed bills, implemented policies and unveiled plans misses the forest for the trees.
Why have activists not publicly challenged Obama’s largely following the moderate Clinton-Gore course, and his failure to ignite the grassroots with a sense of ongoing social transformation that Democrats felt in 1965 or Republicans in 1981? There are four key reasons, none of which alters the fact that activists’ continued refusal to publicly hold the President accountable will doom prospects for progressive change.
Dramatic Improvement over George W. Bush
The chief reason activists hesitate to challenge Obama is that he is an extraordinary improvement over his predecessor. In fact, FDR is the only other Democrat in the past 100 years who has come into office following such an equally scorned Republican predecessor.
If Bush is the standard, then nearly everything Obama does can be redefined as transformative, progressive change. Under this reasoning, Bill Clinton also implemented a “progressive agenda,” as nearly all of his policies were far to the left of George. W. Bush.
In addition to moving the ideological goalposts, Bush also left Obama with such huge domestic and foreign policy challenges that many feel it is unfair to criticize his plans to surmount these difficulties. And with the Republican Party moving so far to the right, criticizing Obama is seen as bolstering the destructive agendas of Michele Bachmann, FOX News, and their allies.
But activists should be setting the progressive agenda, not allowing it to be framed by Bush and the Republican Party. The notion that any policy to the left of Sarah Palin is now “progressive” guarantees that the Clinton-Gore era will be as good as it gets – a view candidate Obama rejected in defining his candidacy as an “historic” opportunity for change.
And those who believe that the economic crisis Obama inherited inhibits progressive policies should recall that a year ago activists were arguing the opposite. In fact, Bush’s failures abroad were said to give the new President an historic opportunity to break from the nation’s endless military adventurism.
FDR used an even worse crisis to completely transform the nation’s approach to jobs, social welfare programs, the arts, and organized labor. FDR knew that his progressive base would publicly protest anything short of radical reform; to date, Obama has no such fears.
Obama Acts out of Principle, Not Expediency
Activists are also reluctant to challenge Obama because they believe that, unlike Bill Clinton, he acts out of principle. And while nobody becomes President without practicing political expediency, Obama appears to truly believe escalating war in Afghanistan is in our nation’s best interest, and that any health reform measure that expands coverage represents transformational change.
But Obama’s motives are irrelevant. And if activists allow politicians to ignore their campaign agendas out of personal conviction, then forget about seeking progressive change through elections.
The third explanation for activists giving Obama a pass is the extraordinary psychological investment so many activists have made in the success of the Obama presidency. After working day and night for months to elect Obama, it is not easy to accept that he is not the president you thought he would be.
And committed Obama backers are not about to reach this conclusion in the first year, and when the ultimate outcome of health care and other priorities remains up in the air. And considering that there are not other progressive leaders to step in should Obama go south, activists desperately need Obama to be the progressive leader they thought they elected.
Such psychological and emotional factors make the lack of public dissent understandable to date. But once the health care bill is finalized, activists may soon have to come to terms with political reality, and begin publicly demanding that Obama’s actions match his campaign themes.
Finally, many seasoned activists had low expectations for the new President’s ability to bring major change. This explains why the laundry list of Obama improvements over Bush are framed as historic progressive achievements, while the President’s failure to pass nearly all of the central components of his campaign platform is attributed to institutional forces rather than strategic shortcomings or a lack of will.
But one wonders about Obama’s role in reducing activists’ expectations.
When I interviewed SEIU President Andy Stern last March, he envisioned that two of his union’s top three priorities – health care reform and the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) – would pass in 2009 and that comprehensive immigration reform might squeeze in this year as well. Stern joked that so much of the Obama agenda would pass in the first year that there would not be a lot left for the rest of his term.
Stern’s high expectations were not unusual. In those days, we were told that Presidents should address the hardest issues in the first year, because it gets tougher when mid-term elections approach.
Instead, immigrant families spent 2009 facing job losses and deportation, as the ruthless policies of the Bush era largely continued. While Obama has promised action on legalization of undocumented immigrants in 2010, EFCA is barely even mentioned these days, and there is no current schedule for its consideration.
And real health care reform, labor’s top priority, remains on life support.
Undermining Progressive Change
The most important idea hoped readers of The Activist’s Handbook would learn is that activists must hold the progressive politicians they elect accountable. Using the first two years of the Clinton-Gore Administration as a classic example, I showed how activists were so fearful of losing “access” and potential support on “their” agendas that they allowed the first Democratic President in twelve years to break his campaign commitments and destroy any prospects for progressive change.
And how did the base respond to activists’ failure to hold Clinton accountable? Democrats stayed home in the 1994 elections, handing control of the House of Representative to the Republicans and shifting the nation rightward for nearly fifteen years.
Many of the excuses for not holding Clinton accountable are now being made regarding Barack Obama. But those who believe that fear of a Palin Planet will get Democrats to the polls in 2010 are wrong, as scare tactics will not overcome a pervasive sense that the Democrats did not deliver on their pledge to bring “Change We Can Believe In” starting in 2009.
Fortunately, President Obama still has time to deliver for his base. But this will require activists and constituency groups to ramp up public demands for such a course, rather than thinking they are helping the progressive cause by making excuses for a president whose inspirational words about social transformation have not been matched by actions.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press). Randy discusses how to keep politicians accountable in The Activist’s Handbook
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