Holding Obama Accountable

After spending 2009 mobilizing grassroots support for progressive change, activists in 2010 face a new challenge: pressuring President Obama to fulfill a progressive agenda. A new approach is clearly needed, and three steps should be taken.

  • First, email campaigns, protests and media events must directly target Obama, rather than insulating him by attacking appointees like Rahm Emanuel, Tim Geithner, or Lawrence Summers.
  • Second, activists must pressure progressive Senators to put their constituencies’ interests ahead of Obama’s political agenda.
  • Third, and most critically, activist groups that the Democratic Party is counting upon for money and volunteers in the 2010 midterm elections – such as organized labor, MoveOn, and the Netroots – must be willing to play hardball with Obama.

The strategy of protecting Obama from criticism failed progressives in 2009, and will not lead the President to strongly back progressives on immigration reform, climate change, EFCA, and other key issues in 2010.

After writing a piece in November 2006 urging Barack Obama to run for president, and then authoring dozens of pro-Obama articles through this fall, I know it’s not easy to criticize a president you campaigned for, and believed in. But 2009 showed that immunizing Barack Obama from the standard activist pressure tactics fails to bring progressive victories, as Obama is not the fighter for change that his campaign promoted.

Activists Need New Strategy
But Obama’s unwillingness to fight in 2009 does not mean that he will oppose progressive measures in 2010. Rather, it means activists must change their tactics and strategies toward the President.

Specifically, activists must employ what I describe in The Activist’s Handbook as the “fear and loathing” approach that has long proved necessary to get most politicians to do the right thing. Activists must make Obama fear the political repercussions of not backing progressive positions, even to the extent that the President comes to “loathe” those creating such pressures.

These words will disappoint and even anger some of those who thought Obama, like FDR, would lead the struggle for progressive change. But President Obama has used personal relations with activist insiders, and the granting of “access” to previously shut out DC-based groups, to break progressive commitments, all the while avoiding much criticism from the Left.

Directly Target Obama
A new activist strategy begins with directing grassroots energies away from attacking Sarah Palin, Joe Lieberman, the Republican Party, or Obama appointees, and building pressure campaigns toward the person who holds the power: the President. It’s easier to raise money by targeting such popular villains, but such appeals are sent to already progressive audiences who can have far greater political impact if targeted toward influencing the President they helped elect.

The activist groups whose emails daily fill our inboxes urging specific actions and donations, or who hold regular national media events, must start focusing on the President’s actions and positions. This means raising grassroots pressure on the President’s lack of commitment toward a particular progressive goal, such as the slow pace of his judicial appointments, U.S. Attorney nominations, and his quietly allowing lone Republican Senators to “hold” key agency appointments, rather than the 2009 practice of constantly mobilizing against the latest falsehood from Palin or FOX News.

It’s Organizing 101. Activists are trained to target the ultimate decisionmaker in local campaigns, so why would those seeking progressive change at the national level avoid targeting the President, with whom the buck stops?

Those arguing that pressuring Obama from the left “tears down” the President and plays into Republican hands should explain why so-called “moderate” Democrats are not subject to such accusations when they challenge Obama. And their confrontational approach to the President has prevailed time and again.

Pressure Democratic Senators
Activists must also stop giving their Senate allies a free pass.

It was striking to see the pained expressions on the faces of Senators Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, Jay Rockefeller and other robust public option backers when word emerged that the Senate was killing the public plan. I think these and other Senators got rolled by President Obama in the same way as labor unions and activist groups, wrongly believing that the President would insist on a public option in the final bill.

But now that Senators know how the Obama Administration operates, there’s no excuse for their quietly allowing the President to weaken progressive legislation. And holding Obama accountable could be a matter of political survival.

For example, California’s Barbara Boxer is among the Senators with a long progressive track record who faces a well-financed Republican opponent in 2010; if Boxer is not seen by constituents as fighting for progressive change, the infrequent voters they depend on to win – particularly Latinos if they are unhappy over the immigration reform outcome – will not be coming to the polls in November.

Labor and Progressive Constituencies
Ultimately, whether Obama is pressured to fulfill his progressive campaign pledges depends on whether such key constituency groups as organized labor, MoveOn, the Netroots, and progressive groups nationwide are willing to publicly play hardball with the President they strongly backed.

Consider labor. The AFL-CIO unions and SEIU together invested over $120 million in the November 2008 elections, and Obama and the Democratic Party are counting on labor’s strong backing this November.

What if labor publicly announced some “bright line” provisions on both EFCA and immigration reform whose enactment are a condition for its support of the Democratic Party in the 2010 midterm elections? If it’s fine for Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to publicly draw lines in the sand – and on health care both were given what they demanded – why not the labor movement?

Candidate Barack Obama regularly stated that his campaign was not about him, but rather about a new vision for America. Now activists must pressure the President to implement this vision, or else risk deflating the hopes for real change that Obama’s election engendered among long cynical Americans.

Randy Shaw

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

Republished with permission from Beyond Chron


  1. Thelma Sims Dukes says

    I would be mystified by the way America has reacted to two incidents of 9/11 and the election of a black

  2. Elaine says

    I hope that the above people with their comments realize that the history books that have been used to change America’s history & by doing so have not served this country which was the greatest Nation in the World. You can only learn from your or others mistakes & the Black & White Founding Fathers being taking from the history books have taking the lessons we should have learned & kept us from loosing our pride & realize that we are all Americans & the loss of knowing the mistakes we have made & the pride in how are country came to be remarkably the best in the entire world. No leader of the United States of America should make his first speech after being inaugurated overseas & apologize for us, calling us arrogant, dismissive & derisive. Telling a group of Muslims we are no longer a Christian Nation but a Muslim Nation. The audacity of a man to do this to the United States of America especially right after taking the oath to protect & preserve the Constitution should have been stopped then before we got into a 13T dollar debt, in which the money was mostly borrowed from communist countries & spent on unnecessary things. No one should have let him bail out banks, or car makers or make decisions on how a company should be run or tell them what they should pay their CEOs. He has never ran a business & therefore has no knowledge of how businesses work. Now after the first of the year he is not going to renew the Bush tax cuts. Stop & think about Estate Tax going up to 55% tax! There should never be a tax on any Estate Tax because it has been taxed & payed on for years by the person who wants to leave it to their family. This is money that has been taxed so many times & here he is going to tax it again & there is no logic to it, just greed & power. The people that are going to get payments from BP should not be taxed because they have suffered so much; but here comes the greed again. I want to live free & I do not mind paying taxes when they are fair. But when they want to continue to take as much money from us as they can, kill all the jobs, destroy us economically, make us dependent on the government & cause us to loose our pride because they want to bring us to our knees & turn us into a third world country.
    You need to read A Patriots History of the United States & the Black Founding Fathers & so many more because we were not told this in our history books. We the older generation learned a lot more about it but the younger generation has no knowledge of what to do.
    I love my country & all Americans, & if some of you do not wake up & see what is being done to us & our country then you better do some soul searching because that is not how the majority of Americans want.

  3. says

    Bush was deliberately blind to what we see as evils, or found them to be actually good. (But he was strongly for family values – the financial values of the Bush et al families.) By way both of continuity and contrast, Obama (and the Dem congress) simply doesn’t seem to care much about anything – so long as it has the right topical labels.
    So now ‘health’ means insurance company subsidies, ‘peace’ means killing Afghans and letting Darfuris continue to be killed, while being sure to stay peacefully ‘engaged’ with Iranian dictators so as to give them all the time they need to repress democracy and build nukes. ‘Environment’ (continuing the Bush-Palin policies) means deliberately whacking off mountaintops for coal and exterminating wildlife like wolves, bears and even sea turtles.
    Randy and Dr Stephen are correct – it is a bad idea to let your actual or potential support be unconditional or be taken for granted.
    In the larger sense there is no holding anyone – including Emperor-Pres. Obama – accountable under our 18-th-century constitional system. At any level – local, regional, state, federal – that system puts public-policy decision power totally in the hands of a small (and, as population grows, relatively ever smaller) oligarchy of long-term-serving (and thus readily corrupted) politicians – and all supposedly legitimized by the populist veneer of undeliberative mass elections.
    For that reason I share Dr. Stephen’s anxiety about what may be in store – at least if we don’t earnestly try to reform the constitution and underlying attitudes toward public decisions (which now require no rationales other than the fiat of an oligarchy or of a non-deliberative electorate). Instead of a republican delegation of power away from ordinary citizens or to everyone at their most ignorant, we need to insist on explicitly rationalized decisions being made (and reviewed for confirmation or veto) by deliberations of many juries of willing ordinary citizens.

  4. says

    The first election in which I was active, and then a medical student, was FDRs final campaign. I was pleased to work for the election of Obama. I now, at the age of 88, have prided myself on being a life-long Democrat. No more ! Obama has been a near total disappointment, a whimp, and has continued to genuflect to the large banks and corporations. His “leadership” in the “health care” debate has been a sham, as he has shown homage to PhARMA and the health insurance cartel. I addressed this in my ongoing articles on The Rag Blog. These issues added to his mindless action in Afghanastan, his catering to the Wall Street banks while ignoring the unememployment situation, and his frantic, simplistic response to the Christmas “terrorist attack” are examples of his many weaknesses.

    In my final years shudder what lies ahead for this nation, especially when I watch the Republicans, the ‘tea-baggers’ and the generally uninformed, naive, anti-illectual American public. I remember well how a much better informed society, a society that had produced Bach and Brahms, Goetha and Shiller, succumbed to a paper-hanger.


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