THE LEFT, OBAMA AND HIS BASE
Where do we go from here?
That's the question Paul Krugman and Robin Wells ask in the New York Review of Books, 1/13/11. That's the question that grips everyone on the left of American politics.
On many domestic issues there is a broad progressive consensus, the need to fight like hell to convince and rally people to push back against the corporate billionaires and their shameless political front men in Congress. Only greater public understanding — the will to confront those making out like bandits while masses face long-term joblessness and poverty — can turn things around and revitalize momentum for progressive change. There is no lack of serious programmatic ideas, nor is there serious disagreement on most issues.
It's a different matter when it comes to analysis of why things turned sour and of strategy going forward. Here frustration and differences are rife. Argument often divides over estimates and attitudes toward Obama and his administration.
Krugman/Wells, while acknowledging objective difficulties imposed by the severe economic crisis and the ultra-right's dominance in mis-shaping "public opinion", put the onus for the startling rightward political shift on Obama's political mistakes and leadership failures. Echoed by Jeffrey Sachs, Michael Lerner, and many others after the 2010 election debacle, Krugman/Wells essentially write off Obama and admonish Democrats to "to delink their political fate from Obama". Lerner and a few others call for a candidate to challenge Obama in the primaries before the 2012 elections.
In contrast, a minority left view is offered by Sam Webb in the People's World, 12/31/10. His criticism of Obama is muted, and he admonishes the left to recognize its own responsibilities: "For too long we have assumed that the American people are ready to wholeheartedly embrace left solutions. If we, and especially the Democrats, project them, 'the people will come.' Tell that to Russ Feingold!"
My intent in this brief commentary is not to try to pull together a direct answer to the question posed by Krugman/Wells: "where do we go from here?" As noted, prescriptions on issues and the need for resolute action are similar across the left spectrum. Emphasis does vary, and it is striking that an anti-war thrust is ignored in the Krugman/Wells projections. I just want to express a few reactions and concerns.
First, a positive note: Krugman deserves a medal to go along with his Nobel for his relentless debunking of prevailing rightwing economic nonsense and exposure of the GOP's venal assault on the interests of all but the wealthiest Americans. In tandem with Bob Herbert, who focuses on Americans living in poverty and on the human costs of war, Krugman provides an exceptional contrast to the norm in mainstream journalism.
The Krugman/Wells (Sachs, Lerner) extreme condemnation and virtual dismissal of Obama is another matter. Here things are not so simple. To accept that analysis whole and to act on it strategically could prove counter-productive. Yes, I think progressives must be independent and critical, exerting pressure to its maximum without being bound by what Obama may or may not do. In that sense, "delinking" is necessary. But that doesn't mean indifference to the political fate of Obama's presidency and what it means for the American people. It doesn't mean writing off Obama and the many who continue to support him as representing the best in the current sorry mess of American politics. That raises the question of Obama's base, often glibly assumed to be "the left" that claims credit for his election and now feels abandoned. Actually the base goes far beyond ideological boundaries, including the large majority of African-Americans, of Latinos and recent immigrants, of Gays and others who feel that Obama is on their side and resent the racist backlash against him. Those on the left who feel cavalier about closing the book on Obama, should think twice about alienating themselves from the largest part of his base.
Obama has achieved some social and legislative gains against enormous counter pressures, but his chosen course and political decisions have contributed significantly to the dramatic rightward shift in political power during 2009-10. Whether or not there was an alternative to his "deal" with the GOP in the lame duck Congress, much of what was done or not done in 2009 and 2010 made the electoral "shellacking" a foregone conclusion. His cabinet choices and policy decisions were conditioned by avoidance of conflict with the rich and powerful, the generals and the military, and even the defeated GOP. He correctly read the desire of most Americans for a different spirit of cooperation in Washington — he felt that if he offered his hand to the Republicans and they spurned it, they would pay the price in public opinion; instead, their consistent obstructionism made him the fall-guy for the ever worsening situation. Despite his elevation of massive community organizing in his victorious 2008 presidential campaign, he relied in office on personal negotiating approaches, to the virtual exclusion of mobilizing public support for the necessary scale of stimulus and jobs programs. Unlike FDR, he largely neglected to reach out directly to the people through his "bully-pulpit".
Given how thing have turned out so far, it's comfortable for some on the left to pass off the Obama phenomenon as all myth and illusion from the very beginning. The "neo-liberal" label is pinned on him, he's 'always been a conservative', 'he's really pro Wall Street'. Such stereotyping and assignment of an individual to a closed political box runs counter to much historical experience. Movements and the flow of events can change how individuals see things and how they act. All things considered, there can be little doubt that Obama views himself as on the side of struggling Americans — nor is there any doubt that defeating him and "taking back the country" is the prime objective of the neo-fascist mob.
As Krugman/Wells remind us: "American politics have proved astonishingly mutable, with not one but two supposedly permanent majorities quickly collapsing in 2006 and 2010. Things may turn again, as long as progressives fight on."