What Will It Take to Bring Obama Home? Civics 101

obamas in ireland
President Barack Obama watches as First Lady Michelle Obama draws a pint at Ollie Hayes’ Pub in Moneygall, Ireland, May 23, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

How Do We Bring Obama Home?

I care less about bringing President Barack Obama home than I care about having a government that exists to work for the common good – that enacts legislation and carries out policy that serves the people, not the corporate bottom line.

To get that kind of government, we’ll need to do way more than just bring Obama home. We’ll need to initiate a culture change.

When President Obama came into office, we were in the midst of two wars, a global economic crisis,  were experiencing record unemployment, runaway debt, skyrocketing foreclosures, a healthcare crisis, failing public education systems, crumbling infrastructure, a political system so polarized, crony-ized, and corrupt that few trust it and, of course, unequivocal evidence that humans are causing runaway global climate change. What a mess!!

Who created this mess? And how are we addressing it?

Mainstream media and the blogosphere are teeming with articles about Obama’s performance. They say he’s too progressive or not progressive enough, too moderate or not moderate enough, too harsh on his base or too accommodating, too conciliatory, cautious, and cerebral — and believe me, there’s plenty his Administration has done or failed to do that I find dismaying. Yet, while it is important to keep tabs on what’s going on in Washington, I don’t know if there is much value in debating the president’s performance without also assessing our own.

This mess our country is in was caused by more than just politicians and none of the problems Obama inherited were of his making. This is an important point because it goes to the crux of this piece. The quagmire we find ourselves in was decades in the making. During those decades we created a culture of politically ignorant ambivalence. It is that culture that set the stage for power hungry opportunists to create or influence the decisions that resulted in what we have today.  Without changing this culture, we’re bound to end up right back here regardless of the decisions made by this or any other president.

In 2009, at the height of the hoopla over healthcare, Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC interviewed a woman who got quite a bit of media coverage for her emotional confrontation of then-Senator Arlen Spector. At one of Spector’s townhall meetings, the woman, Katy Abram, asserted that Spector had awakened a sleeping giant because of his support of the healthcare bill and because he wasn’t doing enough to restore the country “back to what our founders created”.

Abram identified herself as a conservative Republican but, for me, irrespective of her political persuasion, she came to symbolize a core problem at the root of this nation’s woes – a problem that transcends party affiliation or political leaning, a problem that Thomas Jefferson predicted could topple our system. The problem: we lack accurate information and as a result lack the will or motivation to get sufficiently politically active.

In recent times, Americans have typically stayed on the sidelines as observers until they personally experience the negative impact of political decisions then maybe they’ll show up at the polls. This “spectator” mentality is even spreading within the two major political parties where activists once played key roles but now often see most decisions made by party insiders and monied interests behind closed doors.

In response to Katy Abram’s confession that she had not taken an interest in politics until the healthcare townhall debates of 2009, Lawrence O’Donnell asked why now? “You said in your statement that you are 35 years old and nothing has gotten you interested in politics before now,” O’Donnell asked. “What’s interesting to me about that is that means you, as an adult, lived through 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraq War, you lived through all of that and were not awakened into an interest in politics?”

When he asked why those events had no impact on her political involvement but learning that the Obama administration planned to provide healthcare to people who would otherwise not be able to afford it, ignited a fire in her,  Abram responded that, in the past, she’d always had faith in the government but also went on to say, “Honestly, I didn’t really care”.

Perhaps Abram didn’t care about the plethora of ills afflicting our country because she couldn’t see that they would eventually impact her and her loved ones. Maybe she thought of them as someone else’s problem. Perhaps we can attribute her lack of civic engagement on pressing issues such as the encroaching economic crises, global warming, the military-industrial complex, or the prison-industrial complex, to a lack of knowledge.

The interview doesn’t give us enough clues to understand Abram’s admitted political inactivity but I think we all know someone like Katy. Studies, conducted by respected institutions, suggest that Katy Abram, with respect to her lack of civic engagement, is a typical American.

In 2005, Georgetown University conducted a study of American civic engagement. According to the study, when compared to countries in northern and western Europe, the United States ranked among the lowest in civic engagement.

Of the 14 countries studied, the U.S. ranked 13th only second in inactivity to Austria, a country that was incorporated into the Third Reich and ceased to exist as an independent state until 1945.

We fared moderately better in the category of political activity, ranking in the middle. But in the same study, the United States ranked #1 in TV watching.

What the study found was that the population of the United States has, for the past three decades, become increasingly inactive in civic organizations while its participation in various forms of entertainment has increased.

Civic organizations that serve to both educate and support the interests of common people are often so poorly supported that they are struggling to survive. Organizations such as labor unions, environmental groups, civil rights organizations, political parties, human rights groups, consumer rights organizations, peace or animal rights groups and other interests can barely sustain themselves today for lack of participation.

In the early stages of this country’s development, it was this type of civic engagement that served as the cornerstone of America’s successful democratic experiment. Our high levels of civic engagement are what Tocqueville attributed to our success, but today we’ve become a nation of spectators, not activists.

Taken in isolation, this wouldn’t be a recipe for catastrophe but when you combine the lack of civic engagement with the lack of civic education in schools and throw in the misinformation fed to the masses on TV, you get a populace that isn’t equipped with the knowledge necessary to fully participate in democracy in a meaningful way – a way  that ensures their interests are protected.

All too often, we just don’t know enough about politicians or issues to vote in a way that is in our best interest. Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Can we be trusted with ours?

Looking back to the 2008 presidential election, one can’t help but revel in awe at the unprecedented voter turnout. Record numbers of first-time voters, African-Americans, Latinos, independents, and young voters put Obama in office. But that’s as far as most of them went. They put him in office and went back to watching “American Idol.”  They walked away at one of the most pivotal times in American history.

Imagine the power of an administration that had the same awe-inspiring numbers that came out to vote for Obama – this time supporting the progressive agenda with activism, pushing for change by phone banking for progressive candidates in the 2010 election, or writing to Congress about prison-based gerrymandering, or marching en masse to protest the Citizens United decision, or forcing Congress to hold BP accountable for the clean up in the Gulf of Mexico, or supporting the Administration on any number of the pressing issues it confronts.

sharon kyleThe monied interests in this country have a clear set of goals and a roadmap for achieving them. Yes, Wall Street gets what Wall Street demands. I contend that a mobilized progressive movement continually pressuring the Obama administration can also get what it demands. But as long as Katy Abram and the many varieties of Katy both on the Left and the Right continue to dominate the political landscape of this country, we’ll continue to have this debate.

As did his predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President Obama has challenged his supporters to “force” him to make the tough, progressive decisions they want. With a precious few exceptions, we have failed to do that. Until we do, we need to worry more about the home we have made than about bringing Obama back to it.

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive


  1. Ryder says

    Well, now that we are in twice as many armed conflicts as we were in the Bush years…

    Where have all the tough questions gone?

    Why isn’t the whole country pressing him to justify his war against Libya? Why aren’t we demanding a timetable for getting out? (remember, it was going to “be measured in weeks, not months”). How is Libya endangering us? Remember all those questions that were asked when the other party was in office?

    Why is Gitmo still open for business?

    Why are we bombing in Yemen now?

    How did the President get a peace prize and now we are in FOUR armed conflicts?

    Why are we complaining about political division and then turning around and attacking Sara Palin for not knowing enough about history while she is on a road trip (as if that is important) ?!

    When Bush was in office, and we wanted to scream at who created “this mess” we blamed Bush! Now that Obama is in office… what are you asking us to do? Blame ourselves now?

    Well, guess what. I agree with you.

    It IS our fault, and it always has been. Not Bush. Not Obama. Us. We forget that this is our country, and that we are a free people with choice. We forget that we are responsible, and point the finger at white Texans, but are then are expected to point it right back at ourselves instead of a Black Hawaiian. I can’t believe the number of vacations and golf excursions that man takes… looks like he is having the time of his life. Good for him.

    Meanwhile the stimulus has only sunk us into unimaginable debt, and employment has not budged… and everyone is now talking about a double dip recession. Food and energy prices are sky high, as if people don’t need to eat anymore.

    If you are going to blame the man in office, then do it. If you are going to take responsibility yourself, then do that, but this flipping back and forth is an unsightly double standard.

  2. says

    Well,it seems that all of the hope progressives had when barrack became president with a democratic senate and congress that great things would happen for this country like ending the wars,jobs programs,green energy movement,health care for all.now it seems that the only things that i hope for these days are that my job isnt eliminated and that they dont gut medicare and social security.

  3. JohnJay says

    Time has shown Obama to be intelligent, but unwise. A legislator, but not a leader. The political atmosphere has NOT improved under his watch – if anything it’s more polarized, more divisive, and more dysfunctional. He started his tenure with arguably more political good will than anyone in recent history, and I believe he has squandered it and accomplished little.
    So now the call comes to lower the bar – remember folks, it’s OUR fault that he has been so mediocre! Oh please!

  4. annieR says

    I’m 76, a Democrat, and live in Arizona. My state and federal “representatives” (not) are all Republican. I get discouraged. However, I recently attended a town hall held by my rep., David Schweikert. I spent about ten minutes on the phone with one of my state legislators. I sign petitions, send emails, and make small contributions to support issues that matter to me (too many to contribute to all). We can make a lot of noise and we ALL need to do it.

  5. The Boo Hoo Band says

    “As did his predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President Obama has challenged his supporters to “force” him to make the tough, progressive decisions they want. With a precious few exceptions, we have failed to do that. Until we do, we need to worry more about the home we have made than about bringing Obama back to it.”

    Nonsense. “We” have failed to do that? Perhaps you recall the comment from his Press Secretary about the “professional left”? He has failed to pay attention, hence the 2010 Republican takeover of the House.
    Obama intentionally ignores the progressives and, while your post has many good points, you are seriously naive or deceived if you think Obama’s drift to the right is the result of lack of pressure from the left.

  6. Linda Doran says

    This article makes many good points, particularly the comparison of Katy Abram and many Americans. That comparison, I think, is uncannily accurate.

    The comparison between Obama and FDR, however, is, in my opinion, overstated. Like many liberals, I hoped initially that Obama would be like FDR, but in many ways, he simply is not. FDR encouraged people to “make” him do things that changed the status quo by openly criticizing corporate interests on a weekly basis via his radio chats and then being willing to weather their animosity. Obama, on the other hand, has discouraged such engagement even on the part of those who initially were willing to be engaged, as, for example, by dropping support for a public option. He has not been willing to use the Oval Office as a bully pulpit but instead wants to be seen as the good guy, the peacemaker, the ruthless pragmatist. Given his pragmatism, he often reminds me more of Bill Clinton than FDR.

    It is true that, unless Americans take more interest in their government, our democracy will go the way of the dinosaur. Monied interests do, indeed, as you point out, have a road map for achieving their goals. Democracy is a two-way street — power has to flow in two directions, from people to their leaders and from leaders to their people. I submit that at the present time, except in the case of monied interests, we have a paucity of both.

    A brief comparison of Obama and FDR may be read here:

    • says

      Thanks for the comment and the link Linda. Good insights but I did not compare Obama to FDR in this piece. FDR was only mentioned in reference to a statement that President Obama made that was similar to a statement that FDR made. There was no comparison made.

      • U.S. Citizen says

        You did write that Obama encouraged his supporters fo force him to make tough progressive decisions. I don’t recall him saying that, but if he did I think he was pretty disingenous. Doris Kearn Goodwin got a lot of mileage about FDR saying that he agreed and then told his supporters to make him do it.

        Obama showed no interest in listening to the progressives. It started with his appointments. There were hardly any liberals and they had very little voice. Medicare for All, among other things were off the table, Emmanuel talked about the left as retards and Gibbs said we needed our heads examined. Obama wouldn’t return Cornel West’s phone calls and asked Harry Belafonte when he and West were going to cut Obama some slack.

        I agree that we don’t have an “aware citzenry” and that we don’t get complete information from our corporate media. Your also correct that our government continually puts corporate interests over the public good. We do need a strong outside movement but I’m not sure how interested Obama would be. He’s a Clinton corporatist and is aiding the corporatization of America and pepetuating The Second Gilded Age. We need democracy, not corporatocracy.

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