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Change we can accomplish

Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 27th, 2012

Via Facebook, I see that an old California friend, Melinda Welsh, has written an editorial — in her capacity as founding editor of the Sacramento News & Review — urging Barack Obama’s re-election: Past/president/future: This time, it’s about change we can accomplish. We’ve corresponded a little about this before; we disagreed, but amicably, I think.   So I hope it will be OK to disagree again, a (very) little more publicly this time.

I know she’s sincere.  I know there are many more who agree with her than will agree with me — and I recommend her article to them, it’s thoughtful and well written.  But I still think Ms. Welsh doesn’t make the case she sets out to make, whether about Obama’s skeptics and the reasons not to vote for him, or more broadly about the change she thinks we can — or rather can’t — accomplish.

Straw man skeptics
First, readers are given a straw man version of Obama skeptics, one that says we just want to “punish President Obama [for not achieving all that was hoped for].”

Not at all.  The NDAA’s indefinite detention provisions, for those deemed simply supportive of groups associated with terrorist organizations; the drone kill list/”disposition matrix”, up to and including extrajudicial assassinations of Americans; a radically expanded warrantless surveillance state; chilling, tragic, trumped-up persecutions and prosecutions of Muslim-Americans, activists, and whistle-blowers; a new war without Congressional approval: these aren’t worthwhile, unaccomplished to-do items, these are deplorable, accomplished to-do items.

Worse, they’re betrayals of what Obama professed to be and was understood by supporters to be in his first presidential campaign: one who used soaring language to reject “a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand,” one who affirmed that a president “does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack,” one who acknowledged that the president did not have “inherent powers under the Constitution to conduct surveillance for national security purposes without judicial warrants.”

His administration, his supporters, or both?

Maybe these are secondary issues to many readers, or they are by now. OK, everyone is different, everyone has different priorities.  But maybe, too, all too many of us have given up on what we wanted and on what we thought we were getting.  My recollection of Obama’s 2008 campaign was that it was fueled by hope for change — hope for a real, fundamental repudiation of the Bush era.  Obama evoked that hope time and again in his 2008 stump speech every time he tied McCain to Bush, every time he promised voters could “finally put an end to the Bush-McCain philosophy.” 

Instead, “Yes We Can” was followed by “But We Won’t.” (And by now, they’re even giving themselves awards for that.)

Especially in California (where I understand Obama has a very comfortable lead), Americans on the left have an opportunity to …well, yes, I suppose it is to punish Obama for these betrayals. But that wouldn’t just be because he didn’t do enough (though there are very strong cases to be made there as well).  It’s also because he’s done the wrong things, things he said he wouldn’t do. That’s not self-centered or starry-eyed, that is what democracy looks like: you say you’ll do something I want, I vote for you; you do the opposite, I don’t vote for you again.  Break the contract — lose my vote.

As good as it gets?
Where I also part ways with Ms. Welsh on her underlying analysis of what is and is not intrinsically possible, summed up by her claim that “Obama is, in every way, as good as we’re ever going to get.”  Again, not at all.  For one thing, we didn’t even get Obama — not the guy we thought we were working so hard to elect, that is.  (Me, too.)  “Yes, We Can” was true if the question was “can the American left elect a promising candidate?”  “No, we didn’t” is just the answer to whether we got a candidate who lived up to that promise, and to our achievement: his election.

Moreover, some of what Obama has steadfastly advocated has always been problematic in its own right.  Just a few days ago, Obama signaled (unwillingly) his plans to pluck at the strands of our rather threadbare safety net with a so-called “grand bargain”;  he’s putting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — some of the most important accomplishments of the American Left –  on the bargaining table in pursuit of misguided debt reduction goals.  And as welcome as many of Obama v.2008′s other professed positions were, everything depends on actually doing better than he’s been willing to do:  from global warming to financial reform to labor rights to civil liberties to our imperial/”defense”/foreign policies (to name a few) progressive goals are more likely being undermined, not helped, by this fellow who’s allegedly “as good as we’re ever going to get.”

So I think it begs the question when to claim that “a majority of voters in this country embrace moderate views and are never going to support an agenda that calls for a fundamental left restructuring of how things work in America. They can be manipulated by fear into voting to the right, but so far, there seems to be no equivalent motivating force to convince them to vote to the left.” 

Not by arguments like these, at any rate.  And you’ll never know if you never try.  That’s what “our” side is doing, by not giving voters any choice on, e.g., how crippling Iran sanctions ought to be, on how much fossil fuel production, deficit reduction, or drone strikes there ought to be.

For his part, Obama reminds me of Booker T. Washington — a tactical, temperamental conservative who “routinely settled for a situation instead of setting out to fundamentally change it” — and who came to equate that caution with wisdom. 

That’s arguably become just as true of these two leaders’ supporters: favoring the safe, inadequate politics they know of accommodation at best (and betrayal at worst) over a riskier search for the politics they need to find.  Booker T. Washington and his supporters could at least justify their caution by the hellish Jim Crow environment they had to endure.  Obama’s 2012 supporters — at least those in “safe” states, but really all of them — face nothing comparable; those who can should insist on doing better, not on settling for less.

Ms. Welsh is looking for “change we can accomplish.”  That’s fine — I just think she sets her sights a little too low; on re-reading, the only future change to accomplish I see itemized is “attempting to end tax loopholes that favor billionaires and millionaires.”  What she’s really, mainly, advocating is playing defense.  Against the other “team.”  When it’s our own “team” that’s doing a lot of the damage too.

Change we can accomplish
What is it liberals stand for?  What does Obama stand for?  Increasingly, it seems like it’s just to be in charge, to tinker a little at the edges of a broken system — and to wring our hands and dread the day the barbarians storm the castle.  That, it seems to me, is the basic message of the 90 Days, 90 Reasons site by Dave Eggers that Ms. Welsh recommends: a shapeless, hodgepodge listing of fairly underwhelming accomplishments of Obama and (given their January 2009 numbers in Congress) of his Democratic Party these past four years.

I don’t say I want a revolution.  But I do say let’s first free our minds instead.  Neither Obama nor the Democratic Party have served us well –  or the huge victories of 2006 and 2008 wouldn’t have been squandered; the huge challenges of  the Great Recession, financial malfeasance and global warming wouldn’t have been ducked; the unnecessary debacles of the 2010 midterms and the 2011 debt ceiling fiasco wouldn’t have occurred.  Obama deserved to face a primary challenger for any of those things –  but the left didn’t have the spirit or the guts for the democracy that would have required.

No more.  Let’s not just settle for the lesser evil every time.  Let’s take every possible opportunity to say and do and vote for the greater good — for what we actually believe in, not just for what we estimate might be accepted.

Let’s get ready for the challenges even a re-elected Obama will pose to the left, too: sign the Iran Pledge of Resistance, join in the fight to save Social Security; help 350.org put some pressure on the guy who’s talking nonsense like “clean coal”; help groups like BORDC or the ACLU defend our Bill of Rights and finally start rolling back the Bush/Cheney years… and the Obama years.

That, too, is change we can accomplish.  In fact, until we do, real change won’t happen — it won’t even be considered.  So me, I’m voting for Jill Stein in a couple of weeks.  I hope you will too.

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UPDATE, 10/27: for more and better in the same vein, see Matt Stoller’s “The Progressive Case against Obama,” Salon.com.

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