The Genius of Barack Obama: Why We Must Organize Independently to keep Hope of Change Alive

President Barack Obama with ABC's Robin Roberts making same-sex marriage announcement.

This week, Barack Obama took two actions which dramatized the different faces of his Presidency — declaring his support for charter schools as centers of innovation, and announcing his support of same-sex marriage. It was hardly accidental these took place in the same week.

The first, which enraged public school teachers and their supporters around the nation, appealed to President’s longtime funding base among wealthy supporters in Wall Street and Silicon Valley who not only support privatization of public schools, but stand to benefit from such policies

The second re-energized the grassroots constituency — labor, young people, women and communities of color — that had helped catapult the President into office in 2008.

These twin announcements also left the Republicans boxed into a corner. The first announcement “stole their thunder” by appropriating and rebranding their own attacks on “big government” and public workers (something Bill Clinton had also been expert in); the second placed Republicans in the unenviable position of becoming typecast as exponents of bigotry, and losing the vote of independents, if they attacked the President’s position and appealed to their deeply religious core constituency.

Together, the President’s actions cemented my conviction that he was one of the most brilliant politicians I have seen in my lifetime, equaled only by Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and surpassing even his sometimes rival, sometimes ally Bill Clinton.

Simultaneously assuring himself of support from some of the wealthiest people in the nation, while energizing a broad coalition of labor, people of color and globally minded, environmentally conscious youth, has been the hallmark of Barack Obama’s political genius since he first ran for the State legislature in Illinois.

This strategy has not only left Republicans confused — it has encouraged them to appeal to the worst instincts of their core constituent, their racism and homophobia, thereby transforming Barack Obama into a symbol of human rights and civic decency who liberals and moderates have to support to be true to their core values.

As one of those progressives who supported Barack Obama in 2008 and who rallies to his defense every times he is attacked by bigots, I have a deep ambivalence toward the President’s program and real doubts about his legacy.

Yes, he has successfully kept racist and xenophobic elements in the Republican party at bay, and has prevented them from imposing austerity policies that would have plunged the nation into a deep Depression ( just look at Ireland, Greece and Spain to see what “austerity” has accomplished), but he has also continued the foreign policy of his Republican predecessors, deported more immigrants than George W Bush did in either term, launched a campaign to privatize public education that was developed and vetted by his wealthiest supporters, and has failed to launch any initiatives to combat steadily growing poverty or shrink the prison industrial complex.

The result: Two of his core constituencies — organized labor and the Black community — are actually in a weaker position than they were when his presidency began and a disproportionate share of wealth and income continues to accrue to the top 1 Percent of the population, while the middle class shrinks and more people are driven into poverty.

Progressives thus are left between a rock and a hard place. Given the bigotry. xenophobia, and Depression-creating austerity policies emanating from the Republican party, many of us may find ourselves voting for President Obama as a way of staving off economic catastrophe and standing up for the rights and dignity of all people.

But we will do so with little hope that our actions in the voting booth will stop the relentless privatization of public resources, the lowering of wages, the shrinking of the middle class, the erosion of our civil liberties, or the continuation of the police repression, unjust drug war, and racial profiling that fuels the growth of the prison industrial complex.

mark naisonThe battle against growing inequality and the rule of the one percent must take place, primarily, in our streets, our schools, and our workplaces, in grassroots movement that build popular democracy one community, and one institution at a time.

Voting is an important part of that struggle, but without huge grassroots mobilizations, politicians –the President among them — will have their actions held in check by their wealthy contributors. We can have no illusions about the scenario we face. The onus for creating “Change we can believe in” is now squarely upon us.

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent

Posted: Thursday, 10 May 2012


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    Let’s admit it: his open support of same-gender marriage was one of Obama’s finest hours – the top 1% of his presidency.  That still leaves the 99% of his presidential record in the shambles that prior commenters Gary and especially Jay suggest. 

    Naison hews to the party line, that Obama has been our bulwark against the nasty right wing.  Actually, through his tepid and cave-in policies and failure to use the bully pulpit with any consistent passion backed by deeds, he’s been the right’s great enabler.  To thus praise Obama is to adopt the same naivety (or cynicism) that the Russians did in praise of Stalin during WWII: as the great leader vs. Nazi Germany:  which he was by default, precisely because earlier hihs purges of Tukhachevsky et al had destroyed both competence and morale in the Red Army.  

    Folks, it looks like 2012 will be a kind of rerun of 1860 – but without Abe Lincoln.  Yessir, for the Democrats it looks like wishy-washy squatter-sovereignty Douglas (excuse me Obama) of Illinois vs Breckenridge (excuse me, Romney) for the unabashed pro-slavery folks.   

  2. Gary100dm says

     Obama’s cynical non marriage rights calculations

    So, Pres. Obama has seized the political moment and said he is in favor of “marriage equality” contingent of course – in his usual compromising style – on state’s rights, thus ignoring the US Constitution as a standard on equality before the law. This is rather like Abraham Lincoln declaring his personal “evolving” opposition to slavery but leaving it up to the states to decide through the legislative process. Had Lincoln done that, there would not have been the emancipation proclamation.

    Symbolically important, it seems a momentous occasion. But what really changes under a President who campaigned on change? I’m not celebrating. I see a cynical maneuver to side line attention from other issues…  jobs, jobs, jobs, for LGBT people and everyone. And Obama needs reject the doctrine of indefinite detention without due process. And stop the killing of people by drone without a judicial oversight or a hearing of evidence.
     – Gary

  3. Jay Levenberg, Esq. says

    After having read this piece, ask yourself one question. If this is such a great President, why does he need Bill Clinton going around the country propping him up? The great Presidents didn’t need any intermediaries to talk and persuade the public. This President has to been pushed into decisions and he is far from a leader. He was too green to be President and has not grown in office. I see no real reason why the American public would be anxious to give him another 4 years in office. I think he compares much more to a former President named Carter, not ones cited in article above.

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