Keep the Heat on Obama

BY Joel Bleifuss

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The senator from Illinois has an understanding of how politics works that escapes his slavish supporters and jaded critics.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination, Washington progressives – the leaders of unions, think tanks and advocacy groups – fell over themselves to rally around the man from Hope. Part of this support was, no doubt, to make sure that he got elected – after 12 dark years of Presidents Reagan and Bush.

Washington’s notable liberals also decided to act as FOBs (Friends of Bill) so as to ingratiate themselves to the future administration. Once at the left hand of power, the reasoning went, they could use their influence for good.

So the progressive community closed ranks around their “friend” – or the man who was a friend of their friends. Friends like Derek Shearer, an In These Times founding sponsor, who, with Martin Carnoy, re-branded democratic socialism in the 1980 book Economic Democracy.

Shearer, an FOB, was a living testament to Clinton’s progressive bona fides. The two were roommates at Oxford, where Clinton protested the Vietnam War.

After serving Clinton in obscurity as an undersecretary of commerce, Shearer later represented the aspirations of the left wing of the party as ambassador to Finland. Progressives were out in the cold.

You can see the same thing happening today with Sen. Barack Obama, as liberal worthies in Washington rush to lend him uncritical support, somehow forgetting that politics is about exercising power, not cultivating friends.

For example, Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, tells us that Obama has “always been a cautious liberal.” In other words, forget the Obama who earlier in his career supported single-payer universal healthcare, addressed an early anti-Iraq War rally and spoke at a forum sponsored by the Young Democratic Socialists of America from the University of Chicago.

Intentionally or not, this diminishing of expectations takes the heat off candidate Obama. A left that expects nothing from Obama will demand nothing – and a left that demands nothing from Obama will get nothing.

These Friends of Obama who apologize for his every rightward deviation also have their radical counterparts – the chronically disgruntled who eschew Democratic Party politics, invoke an ever-elusive “people’s power” and dismiss Obama in the spirit of knowing cynicism.

Those two opposite reactions are similar in that neither puts pressure on Obama. Both views assume that progressives have no role in history; we are either sidelined cheerleaders (résumés in hand) or radical puritans who won’t deign to engage on the corruptible plane of real world politics.

Such defeatist thinking does not give credit to either Obama supporters or the candidate himself.

On Jan. 15, during a primary debate in South Carolina, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked the candidates, “If Dr. Martin Luther King were alive today, why should he endorse you?” Obama, the one-time community organizer, replied: “Well, I don’t think Dr. King would endorse any of us. I think what he would call on the American people to do is to hold us accountable. … I believe change does not happen from the top down; it happens from the bottom up.”

The senator from Illinois has an understanding of how politics works that escapes his slavish supporters and jaded critics. In that, he is like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who once told an adviser after listening to a well-reasoned proposal: “Well, you’ve convinced me. Now go out and find me a constituency to make me do it.”

Our job is not to convince Obama to govern progressively, but to build the constituency that will make him do so.


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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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