Whether it happened as a direct response to the November 2009 elections, or more gradually, the result is the same: Barack Obama has shifted away from the progressive base whose activism brought him to the White House. On Sunday, Obama Administration officials undermined progressive defenders of the President’s war strategy by going on talk shows to deny that the President intended to exit Afghanistan by June 2011, instead insisting that the U.S. military involvement was long-term.
This capitulation to the John McCain/Republican Party agenda was followed by the President’s meeting with U.S. Senators around health care without even mentioning a public option. Activists have mobilized public support for progressive policies, and groups like MoveOn, Democracy for America, and the liberal blogosphere thought that Obama wanted a broad base for progressive reform. Now these groups and others, along with all progressives, need to stop focusing on Sarah Palin and Republican extremists – and pressure the President they elected to get back on track.
When President Barack Obama took office, many activists and organizations saw their role as mobilizing the public support necessary to enable him to implement progressive change. After Obama’s September health care speech this strategy appeared to be working, but the President has since ignored the progressive base and taken a sharp turn to the right.
Obama Sends Message on Afghanistan “Exit”
Obama’s new relationship with progressives was demonstrated in his shifting approach on Afghanistan over the past week.
Obama troop announcement got a surprisingly mixed response from progressives, even on Daily Kos. Defenders of expanded war argued that Obama made the best of a bad situation, and David Kurtz of Talking Points Memo even argued, “Obama is crafting a new progressive narrative for foreign policy and national security.”
But Obama’s response to critics of his decision has been telling.
To the many Democrats – including Speaker Nancy Pelosi – who argued that money for expanded war would come from domestic programs, and that the United States was embarking on a costly, military adventure without end, the Obama Administration briefly scurried to confirm that the July 2011 withdrawal date was fixed.
This soon gave way, however, to an all-out push to silence John McCain and fellow Republicans critical of Obama’s plan to “cut and run” from what would by 2011 be a 10-year war. The Obama Administration’s desperate efforts to curry favor with Republicans who opposed him politically at every turn reached its crescendo on Sunday, when Robert Gates told CBS’s Face the Nation “there isn’t a deadline,” and on NBC’s Meet the Press stated that by July 2011, “some handful, or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit, will begin to withdraw at that time.”
As the New York Times described it “the Obama administration sent a forceful public message Sunday that American military forces could remain in Afghanistan for a long time,” and “that any troop pullout beginning in July 2011 would be slow.”
Kicking Sand in Progressives’ Face
So after Obama sided with Republican Gates and Bush’s former Iraq military commanders against Vice President Biden, Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic Party base in sending more troops, he kicks sand in the face of those progressives who felt obligated to defend him.
I doubt committing billions of dollars and thousands of troops to a potentially endless war in Afghanistan is what Kurtz and others had in mind in their post-speech defense of Obama’s escalation.
Obama’s desperate concern with Republican criticism after dividing and angering his base over the war is a case study in political unaccountability. Our President is so unconcerned about those who elected him that he is willing to hand a political victory to his adversaries, while embarrassing those who tried to defend him.
Silence on Public Option
While Obama’s foreign policy team was preaching endless war on Sunday talk shows, the President headed to the Senate to push for a health care bill. Those hopeful that he was there to rally support for a strong public option learned after the meeting that he had not even raised the issue.
After all of the mobilizing by groups like Democracy for America, his own Organizing for America, the HCAN coalition, labor groups, MoveOn and others, Obama sent a powerful message that he can accept a bill without the public option necessary to contain costs.
So much for Obama wanting to be pushed by his progressive base.
The outcome of the health care fight is still unclear, and a landmark progressive victory remains possible. But when folks walked the streets, made phone calls, and traveled far from home to promote Barack Obama, wasn’t it assumed that he’d be out front rallying the public for progressive health care reform and not largely staying in the background?
And that he would convey a sense that we were all in this fight together?
Is It East Liverpool All Over Again?
In The Activist’s Handbook, I describe how the Clinton-Gore campaign visited Weirton, West Virginia, in July 1992 and promised that an incinerator proposed for nearby East Liverpool, Ohio, would not open if they were in the White House. Yet two months after Clinton took office, the incinerator was awarded a permit.
This Clinton flip-flop became emblematic of his presidency, yet most environmental groups and nearly all of the progressive community remained silent over the East Liverpool betrayal. Each constituency had their own issues, and did not want to jeopardize relations with the new President by criticizing him over a project that did not impact them.
Obama’s recent actions on Afghanistan and health care should be sending similar alarms.
Neither represents the clear betrayal of East Liverpool, but both show disrespect toward the progressives, activists, and key constituency groups that put Obama in the White House. And they show a troubling deference to the right-wing forces that have not given this President an inch since taking office.
While labor needs Obama to boost passage of EFCA, environmentalists hope for legislation on climate change, and immigrant rights activists seek strong presidential backing for comprehensive immigration reform, it is understandable why many activists and groups will not create a rift with the President over military policy and health care.
Yet it increasingly looks like déjà vu all over again. Giving Obama a pass on his early right turn simply encourages similar moves on other progressive issues, and could set back for years the unprecedented hope for real change that Obama once instilled across the nation.
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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