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:
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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unless your goal is actually to prove that Obama is teh awesome or teh suck--which is a very generalized discussion withdrawn from direct advocacy--then this is an argument over which means will best achieve progressive political ends.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.