Should Progressives Have Chosen Clinton Over Obama in 2008?

barack obama and hillary clinton

barack obama and hillary clinton

At the time, progressives saw a world of difference between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton backed the Iraq invasion that Obama opposed, and spent her early career as a corporate lawyer and boosting Wal-Mart while Obama went to the hard streets of Chicago to work as a community organizer. Clinton was seen as uncharismatic, beholden to the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, unwilling to implement transformational change, and lacking Obama’s ability to rally historically disenfranchised and infrequent-voting constituencies to the polls.

I wrote a piece in July 2007 outlining how disappointing a Hillary Clinton presidency would look like, and have no doubt that progressive support for Obama over Clinton was the right move at the time. But if progressives had a crystal ball that foresaw how Obama would perform as President by the end of 2010, I think most would have backed Hilary Clinton. Here’s why.

Last week was a turning point for progressives’ relations with President Barack Obama. When Paul Krugman described the situation at the White House as a “moral collapse – a complete failure of purpose and loss of direction,” he captured the dominant tone of the progressive community as reflected in a blizzard of articles, blog posts and private and public conversations.

In the course of bemoaning Obama’s surrender to Republicans out to destroy both him and progressive causes, I asked myself whether I still would have supported Obama over Clinton knowing what would occur. And in thinking about it I realized that progressives are in a far worse situation with the current version of Obama than we ever would have been in with Clinton.

Defusing Progressive Opposition
If Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination, she clearly would have beaten John McCain and become President. It was a Democratic year, and while Clinton would have won fewer states and Democrats might have picked up fewer congressional or Senate seats, she would have encountered a political environment in January 2009 quite similar to that which Obama found.

And let’s consider how progressives would have responded to some of Clinton’s critical early moves.

On health care, progressives would have gone ballistic if Clinton, like Obama, had made a secret deal with Big Pharma to kill a public option. But Obama faced no such firestorm, or even much of a backlash outside of Firedoglake and other progressive sites.

Progressives and groups like Democracy in America, Move On and others spent months accepting Obama’s claim that he wanted a public option, downplaying the signals offered by the President’s giving control of health care to Max Baucus and urging input from conservative Republicans like Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi. Progressives like myself were so convinced that grassroots organizing would create the base Obama needed to secure a public option that we did not consider – as we would have done with Clinton –that the President did not care about disappointing his progressive base on this key issue.

We’ll never know if a President Hilary Clinton would have passed a better health care law. But she never would have allowed the process to continue so long that it crowded out the rest of her ambitious first year agenda.

Obama’s escalation of the Afghanistan war is another example of how progressives remained largely silent when they would have taken to the streets under President Hilary Clinton. For all of us who opposed Clinton’s candidacy for her often neo-conservative foreign policy views, the only difference between her potential policies and Obama’s actual ones is that the latter have brought little public dissent among Democrats.

Because progressives did not trust Clinton, they would have always been on the alert and not hesitated to mobilize against a Democratic President. The same has not been true regarding Obama. While activists are now speaking out in force, in recent weeks you have not heard Democratic Senators or congressional leaders or even Howard Dean criticizing the President from the left

Paul Hogarth wrote on December 9, 2009 that Obama was “becoming the Clinton I feared.” Sadly, today’s Obama is far worse.

From “Yes We Can” to “Why Bother”?
The most powerful and exhilarating impact of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and victory was his success at inspiring young people, infrequent voters, and the disenfranchised. People who had not voted for decades, and had given up all faith in the system, committed themselves to helping Obama bring the “Change We Can Believe In.”

Hilary Clinton could never have inspired such a mass drive for transformational change. But the flip side is that Barack Obama’s failure to fight for real change, and his surrender of his agenda in the face of Republican intransigence, has powerful destructive long-term consequences for rebuilding a progressive movement.

How are organizers going to convince those brought into the world of electoral politics by Obama that they should still believe that elections can make a difference in their lives? You may get these folks to vote in presidential elections, but we have seen surprisingly small Democratic turnout in almost every election since 2008 and this trend is likely to continue.

Obama has made it harder than ever for activists to convince people that mobilizing for change through the electoral process can bring results. He has boosted the cynicism about government that his campaign sought to dispel, and left many feeling more hopeless than ever about the ability of activism to overcome corporate and other big money forces.

The Left’s Manchurian Candidate
Some right-wingers have argued that Obama is a Manchurian Candidate, a Socialist sent by a foreign government to destroy capitalism and the United States. But Obama is actually proving to be the “Manchurian Candidate” for the Left, running as a candidate of hope and real change and then using his presidency to destroy both.

The late great scholar/activist Howard Zinn may have foreseen this, expressing grave concern about Obama in a January 2010 message, stating “Obama is going to be a mediocre President – which means, in our time, a dangerous President – unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”

The problem is that progressives have structured and funded their “national movements” around elections, and there is really nothing in place that can push Obama “in a better direction.” Obama’s feeling toward progressive activists was made clear when Press Secretary Robert Gibbs bashed the “professional left” during an August 2010 interview, as it is now clear he was speaking for Obama.

The activist model for holding politicians accountable assumes these officials will act in their political self-interest. When they do not, as when Obama ignores popular opposition to tax cuts for the wealthy, an issue particularly important to his Democratic base, than the President’s onetime supporters become profoundly disempowered.

randy shawThere are those on the left who do not trust any person who is capable of winning the presidency, but even many of them were inspired by Obama. Now, any future presidential candidate professing support for progressive change will find a nation repeating the Who’s classic, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” as the once promising Barack Obama fosters disappointment, cynicism, hopelessness and rising economic inequality as his tragic legacy.

Randy Shaw

Republished with permission from Beyond Chron.


  1. Joe Weinstein says

    Randy correctly recalls why Obama seemed preferable in 2008.
    So his damnation is really not of Obama but of progressives’ irresponsible indulgence of Pres. Obama as versus an hypothesized reduced indulgence of Pres. H. Clinton, had she been nominated and elected. But who knows how indulgent or not progressives would have been with Pres. Clinton? Despite opportunities to take difference stances, progressives seem to be quite indulgent with Sec. of State Clinton and her overall subservience to Obama’s foreign policy conceits

    ‘Trust in the Lord, not in princes’, said the psalmist, with more insight than most progressives (and others) today.

    What is truly pitiful is that progressives still fail to focus some thought and energy on moving our political system toward exit from the perennial quandary of ‘which prince’ to bet on. Yet one way out, as old as Athenian democracy, is more workable today than ever, given our universal mass education and communication. Namely, deliberative (not merely popularity-contest) decisions by teams of ordinary citizens, not by princes.

  2. macdoodle says

    Now with Senate saying its Obama’s job to rally support for doing the legislatures job senators rallying party senators on taxes unemployment etc…
    Instead of taking responsibility instead of doing their jobs to rally support in Senate by the Senate..

    All blame for Dem failures in Congress and senate are being shifted to
    the executive branch whenever possible.

    The Potus power comes when he has the power of the people
    The progressive movement was split some supporting single payer some staying home and polling against Obama at a critical time.
    Public Option the thing ON the table was lost.

    GOP has learned how to fight behind the scenes in their groups and come forward mostly as one. We have lost those lessons and
    lost Big on Public Option, November and it looks to be more..

    I ssee many online and almost none shows support on white house Obama’s fb page for issues.
    while the gop pages show lots of support and where who to write and call on swing votes on all major issues.

    Now anti war people are saying they wont participate in any thing else

    Instead of Lets FIX THIS and Move on from here and prepare for war in 2011

    Let’s argue more over what wasn’t? The CLINTON’S have had full access and I don’t see a lot of support or action coming out of those 2 camps

    WE HAVE SHOT OURSELVES IN THE FOOT and are being laughed at as imploding as we did to GOP pre 2008. We as the group of all on the left are dividing and getting conquered.

    and seem to be practicing ongoing self defeating behaviors.

    WE have a POTUS now
    WE have Congress and Senate now.
    What are YOU doing to get all we can for the people out of them?

  3. Greg Sands says

    I must be honest and admit that I was wrong: I now believe that I may have backed the wrong candidate in 2008. President Hillary Clinton may or may not have turned out better than President Obama–we’ll never know–but I think she would have fought the gNOp on these battles and maybe won more of them. Sorry, Madame Secretary.

  4. Sharon Toji says

    I echo Jay Levenburg. I thought Obama was too inexperienced to be president, and that Hillary Clinton had the knowledge to use the Executive Office to govern. I also realized that the Clintons both know how to fight back when attacked. They never sit down and take it. We knew that any Democrat would be attacked, but Obama is just too conciliatory.

    Besides that, anyone who had followed Obama’s career, as I had (I was excited because he had a mixed ethnic background, as several of my children and grandchildren do), realized that he was, first of all very ambitious, and had his pathway mapped out at least from the point when he entered Harvard. He won his first election in Chicago by making sure all other Democrats were ineligible, including his mentor, who was so stricken by Obama’s actions that she retired from politics. He talked a good game when he didn’t really have to stand up and vote, but after he was elected president, he voted the wrong way, in the Senate, on FISA (and Hillary voted as a true progressive would). He didn’t do anything differently than Hillary in regard to the war.

    I have always thought that Hillary is much more progressive than she takes pains to appear. Women always have to come across as “tough” in order to get through the glass ceiling. I think she would have actually followed up more on promises than Obama has, and her health care plan was actually much better than his during the campaign. She vowed to end “No Child Left Behind.” He said he would “fix it,” but his big push is charter schools, even though research doesn’t show they are any better, on the whole, than public schools. The initial promise of charter schools was a way for innovative programs to take hold, but now they are chiefly used, as far as I can see, to escape the public schools and siphon off money.

    Obama may very well be a one term president. I think we might have a chance to elect Hillary in 2012, but of course the Obamas, who are a very competitive political couple, would never stand down, even if it hurts the party and the country. The best ticket, in my opinion, would have been Hillary as president and Obama as VP. I think they would have won, and Obama might have been ready to take over as soon as Hillary decided to retire or was termed out. We missed our best chance for a woman president that we will have in years, and could have had both a woman president and a minority president and 16 years of Democratic administrations if the Obama’s had not been so impatient.

    Of course, just my opinion!

  5. Jay Levenberg,Esq. says

    I never had all those hopes for Obama that this article seemed to expect. I backed Hillary in the knowledge that she would know how to handle Washington and know how to get things done. I feared Obama’s lack of experience was going to hurt him but it didn’t seem to bother the voters. Many in the party thought he was the next JFK. The problem with that analysis was that JFK had already served two terms in the House and one complete 6 year term in the Senate. Obama had no such background. He came to us from the land of Lincoln as a State Senator and 2 years experience in the US Senate. He is still learning and has been learning at our expense for the past 2 years.

    A wise political sage once told me that if you vote for one candidate, expect that he or she will end up looking more like the opposition than you could ever have imagined. I certainly feel that way about Obama and Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama seems to have moving in directions that can only be termed “puzzling.” I still feel Hillary would have been a much better President and I still believe the reason she lost was because she was a woman. People forget that blacks got the vote just after the civil war. It took women until 1920 to get the same right.

    I find Obama’s answers to questions from the press to be long and rambling and you can read whatever you want into such answers. I would prefer a President that didn’t want to give a lecture on every thing he thinks he knows when answering a question.

    Finally, Obama’s electoral hopes now reside squarely with two things. Number one is the economy which he seemed to think was all taken care of after the stimulus bill. Secondly, he has to hope the Republicans nominate a candidate that is too distasteful for moderates to support. However, if the number one problem is not attended to, it won’t really matter about the second problem above. He will end up like Jimmy Carter, the last unsuccessful Democratic President.

  6. Lauren Steiner says

    Progressives should have chosen Denni Kucinich. He was the only candidate with real progressive views across the board and he would have fought for all of the important issues. The problem is we all thought he couldn’t get elected. I think at this point we need a real third party. If we stop thinking that progressive candidates can’t get elected and third parties can’t win, they will become self-fulfilling prophecies. Even if we’re wrong, at least we as voters can go down fighting. I say Alan Grayson or Anthony Weiner to challenge Obama in 2012 either in the Democratic primary or as an independent candidate. They have shown themselves to be true fighters.

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