For the past several months, a dear family friend has warned me that the left must stop its griping about Barack Obama – for not standing up to Republicans, for not being a champion for everyday Americans, for failing, as Susan Douglas put it in her October column, “to grow a pair.” He argues that such negativity will pave the way to a 2012 electoral defeat and the election of a Tea Party-beholden president.
His point is not that the substance of our critique is wrong, per se, but that we must accept this affable one-time Senator from Illinois for who he is, a man with a “deep-seated aversion to conflict” and a “profound failure to understand bully dynamics” (to quote Emory University professor Drew Weston).
When Obama’s public approval rating among his liberal base started to tank this past summer, I began to think my friend was right. Were we forming a circular firing squad?
In her infamous October Nation column, Tulane professor Melissa Harris-Perry blames Obama’s ratings fall on “liberal electoral racism” as exhibited by white liberals’ “willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors,” like Bill Clinton. But the problem with Harris-Perry’s reasoning is that progressives didn’t bust their butts in 2008 to elect another Bill “Triangulator” Clinton. They voted their hopes.
When you understand that, perhaps it would be more accurate to say – and for Harris-Perry to admit – that Obama’s falling poll numbers reflect his failure to measure up to his one-time fervent supporters’ minimal expectations.
Apparently Obama must think the same, for in the past several weeks Obama-the-vacillating president seems to have rediscovered Obama-the-combative candidate – as he pushes for his jobs bill or as he openly calls for higher taxes on the wealthy. So progressives should give themselves credit: Without their critique, the low-key Obama would have likely remained on his losing trajectory.
In 1979, when explaining his refusal to engage in third party theatrics and to support Democratic candidates, the great American democratic socialist Michael Harrington – a founder, with Irving Howe, of the Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee, which later merged with The New American Movement to become the Democratic Socialists of America – told a reporter: “We want to be on the left of the possible.”
But the line between staying true to our ideals and taking pragmatic action is a hard one to walk. Just as the perfect can be the enemy of the good, pursuing the possible can prevent us from dreaming the impossible.
One year ago, it did not seem possible that Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak would be ousted in the Arab Spring. A few months ago, we wondered where the progressive counterpart to the Tea Party was. Today, we have Occupy Wall Street, a movement whose example is inspiring similar “occupy” movements across the country, from Seattle to Atlanta. And now, President Obama is explaining to the clueless media establishment that the protests reflect “broad-based frustration about how our financial system works.” Folks, the lesson here is that the prospect of organized social discontent commands the attention of political elites.
An ongoing critique of corporate capitalism, like the kind In These Times has been engaged in for 35 years this month, helps foster rare moments like these, when our uncompromised ideals can be put into action.
An oft-told story of the New Deal recounts Franklin Roosevelt telling his impatient supporters: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” This could be our time to make Obama live up to his promises.
If Occupy Wall Street continues to grow, its calls for a more just and democratic system may force Obama to be the president we hoped he would be.
Whether that happens or not, In These Times will still keep reporting from the left of the possible, until the possible moves left.
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.