Barack Obama has been running on the idea of "bringing change" long before McCain jumped on the bandwagon. It was this message combined with Obama's charismatic ability to appeal to the younger generation that led to a largely progressive following. These supporters are obviously tired of the last eight years of rule under George W. Bush and are looking to take the country in a new direction. During the primaries Obama supported positions that excited the progressive community. He called for an end to the Iraq War and voiced opposition to FISA legislation that would give immunity to telecom companies. Since clinching the nomination, Obama has altered his language on Iraq and voted for FISA legislation that gave immunity to telecom companies. Actions such as these made some Obama supporters think twice about Obama's "progressive" message while others dismissed these changes in position as the traditional "move to the right" that Democratic candidates display after they make it through the primaries. Was Obama running to the left in the primaries and returning to his actual centrist beliefs or did Obama actually hold progressive viewpoints but feel he had to shift to the right in order to get elected? Many still claim that Obama must move to the right so he can get elected and only once he is elected can he implement his true agenda. Is there evidence for this view?
In July, Paul Street wrote a piece that is relevant to this discussion. In his piece, Street outlines Obama's political career and comes to the conclusion that there is no evidence that Obama is somehow a closet progressive that will implement radical progressive change once elected. Street claims that Obama is simply a typical politician with centrist roots. Street writes:
Obama's career prior to his emergence as a national celebrity and politician does not jibe particularly well with the "stealth progressive" hypothesis. During his seven years in the Illinois Senate between 1997 and 2004, Obama developed strong and interrelated reputations for limitless personal aspiration, for working closely with Republicans, for "pragmatic" compromise, and for staying close to the great hidden secret to success under the rules of American "market democracy" - corporate money . As Ryan Lizza notes in an important recent New Yorker sketch of Obama's early political career, "Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them"
The important line in this quote is that at every stage of Obama's political career, he has "been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them." In addition to the examples of FISA, the Iraq War, and Israeli support, Street sites the following as other examples of Obama's eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions:
...he did things like:
* vote with Republicans to cap consumer legal damages ("tort reform").
* confirm the war criminal Condoleezaa Rice as (of all things) Secretary of State.
* lecture "bloggers" (Obama's new code name for the growing number of activists and voters who dare to openly disagree with Him from the left) on their need to show proper respect for U.S. Senators who approved the appointment of arch-reactionary opponents of womens' and civil rights to the rule-for-life Supreme Court.
* distance himself from Rep. John Murtha's (D-PA)call for early withdrawal from Iraq and from his fellow Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin's courageous criticism of American Gestapo-like practices in Guantanamo.
* lend his campaign support to pro-war against antiwar candidates in the Democratic congressional primaries of 2006 and otherwise distance himself from the movement against the Iraq War.
* advance the energy agenda of the nuclear and ethanol industries.
It seems as though many Obama supporters are putting their faith in his ability to fundamentally change the existing institutions that have moved America so far backward when Obama's actions over the years indicate that he is more willing to accommodate these institutions rather than tear them down. The conservative criticism that Obama is a closeted "socialist" and the Democratic belief that Obama is a closeted progressive, are both off base in this regard.
With this being said, is there any hope at all for any type of progressive change to be implemented under an Obama Presidency? To address this question it is necessary to recognize the power of corporate interests and lobbyists within this country. One of the criticisms of Bill Clinton was his shift toward more corporatist policies after running a populist campaign back in 1992. In this regard history could very well repeat itself. The next President will inherit a financial crisis like none we have seen since the Great Depression, a national debt that continues to grow, two wars, and a crumbling infrastructure. This financial crisis could provide the pretext for heavy pressure from Wall Street, to cut programs that are needed to reinvest dollars domestically that the United States needs. Think tanks and lobbyists could advise the next President that we simply cannot afford to expand our alternative energy resources or invest in healthcare for everyone. It is this type of pressure that could reignite the same failed polices of privatization that have led us into this mess in the first place. Naomi Klein recently articulated this point in an address to the University of Chicago:
I think it is a waste of your minds, your creativity, because all of these crises—climate change, the casino that is contemporary capitalism—all of these crises do demand answers, do demand actions. They are messages, telling us that the system is broken. And instead of actual solutions, we're throwing ideology, very profitable ideology, at these problems. So we need better ideas lying around.
We need better ideas responding to what a Barack Obama presidency would absolutely face. As soon as he comes to office, "Yes, you can" turns into "No, you can't; we're broke." No green jobs, no alternative energy, no healthcare for everyone. You know, his plan for—to give healthcare to every child in America costs $80 billion. Bailing out AIG cost $85 billion. They're spending that money. They're spending those promises. So, the people who are going to say, "No, you can't," who are going to use this crisis to shut down hope, to shut down possibility, are ready.
Klein reemphasized this point in her appearance on "The Colbert Report" last week. She stated that there are those who will advise an Obama administration that we are broke and cannot afford these changes. These will be the same people who will push for the privatization of things such as our infrastructure. This will be done under the banner that we must eliminate programs that are "unnecessary" and "wasteful". Obama (like McCain) has already stated that he will go through the budget "line by line" and eliminate "programs that don't work and aren't needed." Massive corporate interests are lined up, ready to pressure those within an Obama Administration to adopt policies that will work to uphold the very same institutions that have led us to the dismal situation in which we find ourselves today.
The view that Obama taking power will result in a complete reversal of where we are currently headed is misguided. This belief, that actual change is possible within the two main parties, is unfounded and not supported by history. All major movements for social change have grown out of movements which have forced the party in power to adopt policies that they can no longer refuse to ignore. From Women's Rights to Civil Rights this holds true and the circumstances today are no exception. It is here that there may be some hope around Obama's candidacy: With such a massive groundswell of support for this man there is potential for a movement to form in order to counter the influence of Wall Street, lobbyists and other corporate interests. It is first imperative to realize that Obama is not going to change things without overwhelming pressure from an outside progressive movement. If those who are progressively minded and have supported Obama walk away from the process after the election, then we will not have any hope for accountability. These energized progressives within the Obama campaign need to join with those who have been fighting within existing movements such as the anti-war movement, the media reform movement, or the environmental movement and hold a potential Obama Administration accountable. We live in times where putting faith in one man to change a system is not going to work. A powerful movement is needed to force a potential Obama Administration to adopt policies that they can no longer refuse to ignore.
Many of those who have been fighting this fight are already keenly aware of these problems. This is the reason that there is a very real fight to open the debates to third party candidates to address these issues and this is the reason that many people will either sit out this election or cast their vote for a third party candidate. Those who feel strongly about Obama's possibility must join with those who feel strongly about a unified people's possibility. Obama will not change things on his own, the people must force Obama to change, especially because Obama is a candidate that adapts to institutions rather than tear them down. The people must tear them down.
While a glimmer of hope is there, I fear that this will not happen. I fear that those who have fought this fight for years will be left to continue fighting while a group of confused Obama supporters wonder why things are still heading down the same path. I hope I am proven wrong because the United States can not take much more of this.
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