How can Obama claim that Boehner is a knee-jerk opponent of anything associated with the White House when the Speaker is backing the President on Syria? Why would Obama push an issue that allows Boehner, the chief obstacle to immigration reform, to appear “reasonable” ? By jeopardizing his entire domestic agenda over the bombing of Syria, Obama has violated the civil rights movement’s core activist teaching; keep your eyes on the prize.
Barack Obama once prided himself on being a former community organizer, but as president he has lacked the strategic savvy that successful organizers must have. Organizers keep focused on the task at hand. As the legendary Fred Ross Sr. put it in his Axioms for Organizers, “When you are pushing a big drive or issue, you stay on it to the total exclusion of everything else—until it is done.”
Immigration reform is not done. Nor is the budget. Obama’s public investment program has not been enacted, and the federal minimum wage has not been increased.
Despite this unfinished business, the President took his eyes off the prize. After a round of media interviews yesterday and a national speech today, Obama has put Syria ahead of mobilizing around all other domestic issues.
Repeating LBJ’s Mistake
Obama has been unfairly compared with former President Lyndon Johnson over his failure to win legislative support for his agenda. Yet on Syria, Obama is following his predecessor’s lead.
Just as Johnson squandered political support and funding for his ambitious War on Poverty by expanding the Vietnam War—a war that Johnson never even believed in—Obama has diverted attention from all the issues that got him re-elected in favor of a Syria bombing whose longterm benefits even he seems to doubt.
Obama’s shift to an all-out campaign around Syria just as Congress returns to face fights over his domestic agenda is not the first time he took his eye off the prize. In 2010 he decided that deficit reduction should take precedence over job creation, a mistake that Obama backers vowed the President would not repeat.
They were right. Obama now criticizes deficit hawks and promotes public investment and jobs.
But Obama’s mistake in taking his eyes off the need for jobs is now being repeated with his untimely focus on Syria. As the AFL-CIO meets in Los Angeles to address the economic crisis impacting millions of Americans, the President has turned Syria—not jobs or low wages— into the national talking point (and perhaps reflecting his skewed priorities, Obama did not appear in person at the AFL-CIO convention as he did in 2009 but instead spoke to the crowd via video).
Another Reason to Oppose Bombing
If Obama convinces Congress to support the bombing, Syria will dominate the news cycle for months. And while immigrant rights activists have set their own mobilizing agenda that is not dependent on the president, they will get far less publicity for their activism if Syria is the chief national discussion topic.
Activists recently turned in 600,000 hard copy petitions to Boehner urging him to allow a House vote on the Senate immigration bill. But with the media obsessed with Syria, few Americans learned of this action—-and its impact on the Speaker was reduced.
Obama’s domestic agenda faced challenges without Syria, but diverting national attention away from his priorities doesn’t help matters. And when the White House tries to pressure Boehner on immigration by describing him as out of the mainstream, the speaker will respond that Syria shows that he bases his positions not on GOP knee-jerk opposition to the President, but on specific issues.
Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron. His new book is The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century. He discusses the great Fred Ross Sr. in his previous book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.
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