On the argument about whether Obama is progressive enough or not

by: Chris Bowers

Wed May 26, 2010 at 17:30


One of the most common arguments in the blogosphere, and indeed in the entire progressive ecosystem, is whether President Obama, and his administration, are ideologically in tune with the broad progressive agenda (see a quick synopsis of that agenda here.)  It is certainly an argument I have engaged quite a bit, even too the point of landing an appearance on Hardball back in late 2008 to discuss it.  As most of you reading this blog probably know, I weighed in on the "no, he isn't" side of that debate.

However, as time as has gone on, I have gradually come to believe that this argument is missing the point.  Ostensibly, the stakes of the debate are as follows:

  1. Those who think Obama is doing the best he can for progressive causes will seek to defend him in public at all turns, and to work with / within Democratic Party structures like Organizing for America.

  2. Those who think Obama is not doing enough for progressives will engage in public, left-wing pressure against the administation, and work to build coalitions independent of Democratic Party structures like Organizing for America.
Now, this choice seems like it is about President Obama and the Obama administration, thus justifying the ongoing argument about whether Obama is sufficiently progressive.

However, if you look closer, you can see that this debate actually isn't about Obama at all.  Instead, this debate is actually about choices over what sort of public messaging and coalition building will best achieve your desired advocacy ends. To put it a different way, unless your goal is actually to prove that Obama is teh awesome or teh suck--which is a very generalized discussion withdrawn from direct advocacy--then this is an argument over which means will best achieve progressive political ends.

Given that this argument is about tactics involved in political advocacy,, and given the the variable nature of useful tactics involved in political advocacy, the utility of determining whether Obama is progressive enough, in some generalized sense, falls apart.   Across several campaigns, the goals of the Obama administration will have a variable relationship to your goals as a political advocate.  Also, across several campaigns, the coalitions you work with will have variable responses to public, left-wing pressure on Obama.  There are going to be times when supporting the administration, and working inn concert with it, is the best play.  There are going to be times when working independently of the administration, or even taking an oppositional stance to it, is your best play.

The 2010 elections provide good examples of both circumstances.  Supporting primary campaigns by Joe Sestak and Bill Halter, in direct opposition to the administration, have led to positive progressive outcomes in terms of Senate votes 9see Arlen specter's voting record over the past ten months) and legislation (see  Blanche Lincoln's derivatives language).  However, in the general election, maintaining a decent Democratic majority in the Senate, and reforming Senate procedural rules, will be shared goals that virtually all progressive organizations will hold in common with the Obama administration.  There is no hard and fast rule, because this is about achieving certain political ends, not about a debate over the proper normative evaluation of the Obama administration's ideological outlook.

Perhaps this actually means I am just coming down the second camp in the great debate--organizing independently of the Democratic Party leadership and Obama administration--just without a necessarily oppositional stance in that organizing.  Either way, it is a debate that will continue for as long as the Obama administration is around, no matter what I say about it.  Further, that I would even write this article shows that I am still fascinated by these discussions, even if I ostensibly claim to have moved beyond them.

If you read this far, you are probably fascinated in these discussions, too.  As such, you would probably enjoy the America's Future Now Conference, from June 7-9 in D.C., which is putting this debate at the center of its agenda:

The Campaign for America's Future has held an annual conference every year, and typically the attendees would discuss how conservatism has failed and how their leaders can be brought out of power. The next iteration of the CAF conference, titled America's Future Now and scheduled for June 7-9 in Washington, will have a much different focus - an open discussion among the progressive community about how to best position itself in an age of governing.

"The progressive community is somewhat divided, between the folks who think Obama is doing everything he can against a broken political system, and the folks that think he's not doing enough, and that we need an independent force to push him," said Bill Scher, the Online Campaign Manager for CAF. "We're going to have that debate at this conference."

Scher highlighted a session called "The Great Debate: Progressives in the Obama Era," where Executive Director of the Progressive Congress Action Fund Darcy Burner and Executive Director of the Center for Community Change Deepak Bhargava, who sit on opposite sides of the aforementioned divide, will argue how best to achieve progressive goals in the Obama age. This will be followed by community discussions and opportunities to engage on the question, which overhangs virtually the entire conference. "No matter where you line up in that debate, we need to come together and engage" on it, said Scher. "Are we the wingman of the Obama Administration or an outside pressure force?"

Darcy Burner is a real role model of mine, so I will be very excited to see her engage this debate.

And yeah, I threw an ad in at the end of this article. Sue me.  After arguing about it for 18 months on the blog, I want to go see people argue about this stuff in person. You can check it out too, by registering for the conference here.  

Chris Bowers :: On the argument about whether Obama is progressive enough or not

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you know I love to argue in person (4.00 / 4)
But not so much in DC...the day before, day of, and day after the California primary.

So put me down in favor of the most pragmatic moves given the circumstances, with special emphasis on how the ObamaBot's are clearly wrong if you are right in saying:

There are going to be times when supporting the administration, and working inn concert with it, is the best play.  There are going to be times when working independently of the administration, or even taking an oppositional stance to it, is your best play.

And note, Democrats overall would be better off if Harry Reid loses. It is sad that there isn't a realistic mechanism to remove a leader without taking away their seat, but that's the world we live in.

And be sure to use the term Veal Pen.

And don't take seriously anyone who was dumb enough to suggest a cave on health care before Obama even unveiled his plan.

And don't forget to curse the timing, as there's is huge potential synergism between Californians desperately needing to reform the 2/3 rule and progressives desperately needing to reform the filibuster. Probably the biggest potential partnership in Democratic politics.

On twitter: @BobBrigham


I get the sense from this post that you're saying that President Obama himself doesn't matter (4.00 / 4)
but I think he really does.  I get the whole "we have to make him do it" argument, but wouldn't it be nice for once to have a President that just did the right thing, all on his or her own, without the need to be pushed or prodded by the left?  Someone we can count on to fight for ordinary Americans without the need for any kind of "political cover" or hand-holding from the base.  Think of all the time we'd have for our other hobbies!

Really, for 2016 (the next chance we have to elect a progressive President) we in the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party have to get our act together and groom, support and elect a candidate who won't be another colossal New Democrat neoliberal disappointment.


Wouldn't it be nice if the president was just exactly as I like. (0.00 / 0)
Not you, or him, or her, or them, but me, just me.  

--

The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky


[ Parent ]
Although, I find myself agreeing often. (0.00 / 0)
Its a meta snark.

--

The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky


[ Parent ]
Yes and no (0.00 / 0)
wouldn't it be nice for once to have a President that just did the right thing, all on his or her own, without the need to be pushed or prodded by the left?

This will never happen, sooner we accept it, the better. Democracy, by design, exists to prevent that from happening becasue democracy sought to take power from our leaders and give it to the people, who, as falliable humans, don't always believe in "the right thing"

Thus, the leaders are indebted to the people who elect them, and by that I just don't mean the voters (in some cases I do), but also those who provide the resources to buy those votes.  


[ Parent ]
"Never" is a strong word (4.00 / 1)
Public financing of elections.  Hear the whoosh as the corporate influence gets sucked out the window.

As for non-corporate public opinion, since when did politicians care?  See the difference between politicians and the public on just about every economic issue.


[ Parent ]
so? (0.00 / 0)
Politicians will still then be influence by what the voters want, and what the voters want isn't always the right thing...it's very often no...see Arizona.  

[ Parent ]
Politicians can be influenced as little or as much as they want to be (4.00 / 1)
and either way that'd be real democracy, not this semi-democratic plutocracy we have right now.  Wouldn't it be nice to have only regular people like you and me to blame, instead of the same old crew of corporate moneybags?

And sure, voters will want "wrong" things sometime.  And they'll do right things sometime.  That comes with having the freedom to make choices.


[ Parent ]
Not to mention (0.00 / 0)
public financing of elections is likely to be ruled unconstitutional and would need to be passed via a constitutional amendment.  

[ Parent ]
I'm curious (0.00 / 0)
what makes you say this?

public financing of elections is likely to be ruled unconstitutional

Clean election laws have been on the books in a number of states for some time. Presidential elections have included elements of public funding for decades (still on the books).  

Are you aware of any cases where these were struck down?  What would be the basis for striking them down?

Citizens United would be wholly inapplicable to this issue.


Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


[ Parent ]
Citizens United's precedence (0.00 / 0)
hasn't yet touched our laws yet, any fair election law in the wake of Citizens United is going to be challenged, almost certainly succesfully.

I favor public financed elections, but in the wake of Citizens United, I favor a constitutional amendment.  


[ Parent ]
But what is the connection? (0.00 / 0)
Citizens United is a free speech case.  On its face, it not only doesn't settle this issue, it is irrelevant to it. The Court ruled that the government cannot limit spending on electioneering because that would limit speech. Clean elections do not limit spending, and therefore do not limit speech.

Given that, this:

any fair election law in the wake of Citizens United is going to be challenged, almost certainly succesfully.

is unfounded. I am not saying there is no way that the Court couldn't strike down clean elections laws, but there is no reason to say it is certain or even likely.

One more thing - the more clean election laws that get passed, the more support they garner, the less likely the Court will be to strike them down.

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


[ Parent ]
Alright, let's do a constitutional amendment then (0.00 / 0)


[ Parent ]
Obama is only temporary (4.00 / 7)
Let's stop the left/right thing.  OK?  Look at the ISSUES and make up your mind.

More spending on War?
More contractors in Iraq?
More military in Afghanistan?
NO public option/NO single payer?
More drone attacks in Pakistan?
Americans targeted for assisination?
More offshore oil drilling?
Fewer Americans with Miranda rights?
Fewer abortion rights for women?
Absolutely NO Gay Marriage?
Increased Corporate power?
More military on American Borders?
Mandated Corporate Insurance payments?
Increased Surveilance of Americans?
Fewer privacy rights?
Increased extraordinary rendition?

Wow, this list would make Richard M. Nixon Blush.  Nixon's presidency would seem to be our last great liberal President.  We are the new Americans: Afraid of everything that goes bump in the dark - giving up our freedoms for security and getting neither.


alliances (4.00 / 3)
I think that sounds about right. Take that Bill Scher quote:

"The progressive community is somewhat divided, between the folks who think Obama is doing everything he can against a broken political system, and the folks that think he's not doing enough, and that we need an independent force to push him"

The logical grouping there is wrong, or at least unclear.

We need an independent force, full stop.

Once there is an actual liberal thing that has political power - that can deliver and withhold votes, time and money - then we can make alliances with other forces. But until then, we aren't allies, we're components.

Who is doing all they can or not is a separate question altogether, and because in so many ways it is unanswerable, it's not always a useful one.

It's only when people argue that the very existence of an independent force is harmful to Dear Leader, and that we owe him all our energies and resources to use as he directs, that the two questions connect. I hope that not many people really think that way, though. But if they do, that could be a real problem.

not everything worth doing is profitable. not everything profitable is worth doing.


"this is about achieving certain political ends" (4.00 / 3)
I agree with you. It isn't the side, it is how.    We've been doing more and better trying to infiltrate and take over from within, and we are no closer to fundamental change than we were when Clinton was in office.  In fact worse.  Today's Democrats are further to the right than most Republicans were in the 50s and 60s.  

The problem with folks on both sides of the argument is that they always remain predictable Democratic supporters.   If corporate Democrats don't need to court progressives to get what they want, why should they?  I think they need to be dropped on their asses.  What will they do if they have a war election and nobody shows up?  If you have no power, you beg.  I'm done begging.  


[ Parent ]
I agree about the need to be willing to not vote Democratic (4.00 / 2)
Obama/Democratic loyalists often talk about the Democratic Party as if it were a protection racket: "If you don't vote for the Democrats you're gonna get nasty evil Republicans in office!"

We all lived through the Republican trifecta of 2003-2007, and we came out of it battered but alive. (Most of us, anyway.) It was bad but not that much worse than being bullied into supporting what can often be a revolting mix of cowards and frauds.

Of course the answer isn't to vote Republican and enable the conservatives, but to vote for leftist minor parties or write-ins.  Show Democrats that, yes, we do have another place to go and we're willing to go there if necessary.  Make them compete for our vote and make them feel like they need us more than we need them.


[ Parent ]
I think you're right (4.00 / 3)
Much better to talk about strategy and tactics than making global claims about Obama (or the Democrats, etc.)

That said, I'll add two things -

1) We do need to discuss whether particular policies pursued or floated by the Admin are progressive. The grand labeling gets in the way of doing this effectively too.

2) I think we also need a continuing conversation about what it means to be progressive. Labeling without that is useless - you can't tell if disagreements are based in the principle or how it's applied. Conservatives built up their strength, in part, by a sustained period of debating such questions, and we need to do the same.

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


Very good. The compliment of whaty it means to be progressive, the expanding tof the political debate to include things outside our assumptions. (0.00 / 0)
Hell I read "I wish we had easier ways to fire people" right here on openleft. The idea that the whole idea of serving your employer, like it was getting a favor from the local Lord, near made me ill.

So the expansion of what a democracy means (hint, it means you govern your land) among many other areas, and meta areas, is thin and paltry. Being a progressive, IMHO, is discussing ways in which every citizen can free of the four fears for example, discussing ways, if you are a christian, of bringing Mathew into normal everyday life, and not a morality play about charity, its about why are corporations legaly identified as people, but cannot be put in jail.

Etc. Etc.

What does it mean to be on the left. How far from sanity are we.

--

The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky


[ Parent ]
Just as an aside (0.00 / 0)
Do those labeled "conservative" agree about what the word means?

Given the authoritarian streak on the conservative end of the spectrum, I suspect less dissent to the point of definition. OTOH, most fundamentalists tend to think that they are the truest of believers.



"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


[ Parent ]
I don't think so (4.00 / 1)
Do those labeled "conservative" agree about what the word means?

I tend to agree with Lakoff that conservatives tend to be comfortable arguing their values, while progressives tend not to be. That doesn't necessarily mean they agree on a definition. It does mean that they have worked to find common ground.  The conversation itself also made conservatives more confident in their views.  It was not always like this- conservatives used to be fractured.  

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


[ Parent ]
We need a democratic conflict resolution mechanism (4.00 / 1)
Although I definitely land firmly in the "we need to build an independent organizing infrastructure" camp, I think even this debate misses the point.  Right now, there is no mechanism for resolving the dispute over whether to be Obama's biggest fans or his loyal opposition.  Instead, we have organizations and opinion leaders (like you, Chris) who make an argument and people largely "vote with their feet."  

Which is fine, except then you have an outcome in which millions of people are part of Organizing for America, which is making phone calls for Arlen Specter, and millions of others who read OpenLeft or belong to Democracy for America and are making calls for Joe Sestak, and you have Daily Kos people shouting at Fire Dog Lake people.  Unless all of the bloggers and activists with the loudest microphones find consensus, you're likely to see elements of what you describe as "the progressive community" working at cross-purposes, but with no way to achieve any kind of resolution.

I don't think the solution is simply for the big-name organizations to try harder to agree on everything.  Instead, it would be more worthwhile to infuse democratic principles into progressive organizing, say through a network of decentralized local chapters that vote on their own priorities and have democratic representation at the national level.  So instead of convening a bunch of mostly paid, professional activists at the America's Future Now conference to debate how to respond to President Obama, you would have a decision-making process that engages regular folks who represent their communities.

And before anyone answers with, "So why don't you go out there and build a network of democratically-run community organizations," I'm just trying to make the point that because this conversation of "what should progressives do" is somewhat elite-driven, there is likely to be a stalemate between the two camps described in this post.


hrm (4.00 / 1)
organizing independently of the Democratic Party leadership and Obama administration--just without a necessarily oppositional stance

aka astroturfing?



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