Friday, August 22, 2008

What Are Our Tasks, Rather Than Obama's

Photo: David Sirota

Seizing the
Obama Moment:

Which Side

Are We On?

By David Sirota

The question of how progressives can seize the so-called "Obama Moment," as my colleague Bob Borosage calls it, is an important one - and it is critical that the question be asked right now - before the election, rather than after

Though the media's horse race coverage and the Left and Right echo chambers "win at all cost" psychology would have us believe that elections are ends unto themselves, our Founders envisioned them as means to ends - instruments by which the people's will is debated, politicians are pressured, and a mandate is crafted.

Luckily for progressives, America has aligned with us on economic issues, ready to sculpt a populist election mandate.

As a new poll by the Drum Major Institute shows, the center of American public opinion is far different from the center of opinion in Washington and Wall Street that says "centrism" and "moderation" is continuing the kleptocratic financial and trade policies championed by the Goldman Sachs twins, Bob Rubin and Henry Paulson. Unlike the Royalist Right, progressives don't have to manipulate the public with the kind of faux populism that packages, say, tax cuts for billionaires as a supposed panacea for the working class. We can offer the real thing: a real populist agenda for higher wages, fairer trade policies, universal health care, a better regulated financial system and a strengthened social safety net - and we can do that knowing the vast majority of America is with us.

But before we can assess an "Obama Moment" we have to know if this is an actual "moment," or whether this is a mirage, like the one when Bill Clinton promised to oppose NAFTA, and then rammed it through Congress "over the dead bodies" of the progressive movement?

If we are serious about developing the tactics and strategies to bring about real change after the election, we have to first know if Barack Obama is even with us. That is the great unknown at this theoretically transformative "moment." The question that the Illinois senator still hasn't convincingly answered is that age-old question haunting all economic issues: Which side are you on?

When I interviewed Obama two years ago for The Nation magazine, he seemed to yearn for an elusive Third Way on most major economic issues - a middle-ground that can somehow simultaneously satisfy the insatiably greedy corporate profiteers that populate Washington, D.C. and the vast majority of Americans who live outside the Beltway and are getting eaten alive. This likely stems from Obama's disposition as a conciliator and bridge-builder who eschews challenging economic power. Then again, it conflicts with his much-touted history as a supposed Saul Alinsky-style community organizer (Alinsky was, ahem, no shrinking violet).

And so while Obama indeed has a website full of nice policy proposals, Bob is right. He has yet to really take a side in what is (and always will be) a binary confrontation between capital and labor - a confrontation that capital has been winning for most of the last generation, as evidenced by declining wages, eroding health care benefits, and raided pension funds. In fact, a candid examination of Obama's campaign suggests that when the senator does give us a glimpse of his answer to the "which side are you on" question, he is telling us he's not on the vast majority's side.

For example, back in July, the media had a field day berating John McCain's top economic adviser, Phil Gramm, after his comments blaming the middle-class for the recession. Progressives (rightly) used the moment to point out the outrage of McCain ever appointing a top executive at a major investment bank like Gramm as his top economic adviser. Yet, almost no one bothered to question why Obama long ago appointed Gramm's boss, Robert Wolf, as his own top economic adviser.

Similarly, Obama's first major announcement after securing the Democratic nomination was his decision to hire Jason Furman as a full-time economic adviser. Furman's claim to fame is serving as the apprentice to Rubin (the man who jammed NAFTA down America's throat), and defending Wal-Mart's wage and union-crushing economic model. Furman quickly packed Obama's economic team with other Wall Street titans and neoliberal extremists, all but ignoring progressive voices from esteemed institutions like the Economic Policy Institute.

Even now, as Obama knows his major challenge is to win working-class constituencies, Bloomberg News reports that his campaign is "tilting towards Rubinomics" while the Wall Street Journal documents his campaign aides aggressively "trying to wrap themselves in business's embrace by wooing some of the best-known chief executives."

What this all means is that the messy, disorganized and all-too-deferential circus of progressive institutions - from labor unions, to D.C. think tanks, to grassroots groups, to the Netroots - has to move beyond Partisan War Syndrome, and into a movement posture. We must get out of thinking that the cure-all is the election, and realize that while elections are important, constant - and often confrontational - pressure against both parties has always been the only force that makes real progress. Whoever is president - whether it is Obama, the economic progressive; Obama the Wall Street sycophant, or McCain, the Bush clone - that transpartisan movement pressure will be the deciding factor between "change" and "more of the same."

Of course, the propaganda telling us to look only through red and blue lenses - to think only in caveman-ish Obama Good, McCain Bad terms - is powerful. You can't turn on a television, listen to a radio, or read a blog (except for maybe CAF's!) without a superheated - and often fact-free - partisan screed searing your face off.

But the process of maturing from Partisan War Syndrome to movement psychology should - theoretically - be aided by The Who's iconic song "Won't Get Fooled Again" ringing in our ears. On many issues in the 1990s (from welfare to Wall Street regulation to trade issues), the new boss - Clinton - was the same as the old boss, and the results of being fooled still scar our economy today. Though many younger people's sense of political history stretches only back to the outrageous Clinton impeachment, it is undeniable that the reactionary economic policies that are crushing our country were uninterruptedly carried out from Reagan/Bush through Clinton to the present - and getting fooled again this time around could take our economy over a cliff we haven't seen since the Great Depression.

Can progressives mature? It is a tough to know - and it brings up uncomfortable queries that ask progressives a version of the same question we must ask Obama: Which side are WE on?

For instance, can truly progressive groups in Washington match the powerful corporate front groups and faux "centrist" think tanks that get so much attention? Will labor leaders pining for recognition in elite D.C. revert to their quadriennial "thank you, sir, may I have another" attitude when it comes to presidential candidates' footsie with Wall Street? Or will they start making real demands on these candidates, White House Christmas lists be damned, knowing that these candidates are, after all, benefiting from the blood, sweat, tears (and dues) of unionized janitors, truck drivers and teachers? And will much-vaunted Internet-based "grassroots" organizations continue serving only as partisan mouthpieces, or will they actually start organizing pressure against both parties?

How we answer these questions about ourselves - not the whims of Barack Obama or of the same Democratic "strategists" who have destroyed the Democratic Party - will decide whether this is, indeed, an "Obama Moment" that sees real change forced into legislative reality, or whether this election is merely a televised fiddler recital as America burns.

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