Monday, September 1, 2008

Obama's Speech and Our Organizing Tasks

Photo: Obama in Denver

Riveting Speech,
Strategy and Us:
Two Essays on Obama

Riveted: The Barack Obama Acceptance Speech

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

The evening of August 28th, 2008 I put aside my reservations and criticisms of Senator Obama. In fact, I refused to do an interview with a media outlet because I did not wish to critique Obama's speech. I wanted to sit there and take it in; I wanted to sit there with my wife and feel the currents of history.

During Senator Obama's speech, CNN posted the fact that in 1888, 120 years ago, Frederick Douglas received one vote in the Republican Party Convention when his name was put in for nomination for President of the United States. So, here we are in 2008 and a Black man has finally, and quite proudly, secured the nomination for President of the United States of America.

I am a critical supporter of Senator Obama, but this one particular evening I did not wish to focus on the criticism. I wanted to think about the significance of a Black person leading one of the two main parties into battle for the presidency. I wanted to think, more importantly, about the way in which this candidacy materializes the racial dialogue that this country consistently seeks to avoid.

So, for those of us of African descent, this was a highly emotional evening. An evening that most of us probably never thought that we would ever live to see. An evening during which our eyes saw Senator Obama, and our mind's eyes saw the history of our freedom struggle almost as if it were a film being shown in slow motion. At each moment that Senator Obama spoke, we were experiencing the sensation of watching two events on separate screens, all playing out in real time.

For those of us who this society has classified as white, this evening probably brings with it a different experience and a fundamental challenge. Those whites who ideologically unite with John McCain have every reason to oppose Barack Obama. But for those who find themselves among the groups about who Barack Obama spoke--the workers who have lost their jobs, the homeowners who have witnessed their homes go to foreclosure, the parents who have watched their children go off to illegal and immoral wars--they have a tough call. If they have concluded that this society is stepping on them and crushing their dreams, can they find it in themselves to vote for a Black man? Or, in the alternative, will they conclude that it is better to have their lives and dreams, and those of their children, obliterated than to take the chance of crossing the racial divide?


A Candidate for Change, But Not a Candidate of a Social Movement

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Probably like many of you, I have found myself reflecting on Senator Obama's choice of Senator Joseph Biden as his Vice Presidential running mate. From the standpoint of campaign strategy, I must say that it was a brilliant decision. Obama, sensing his own vulnerability on matters of foreign policy - in mainstream circles - picked a running mate with nearly impeccable credentials.

Yet, and we must be clear about this, the choice of Senator Biden clarifies two critical points: one, that the actual politics of this team are “liberal/centrist” and not what one would describe as progressive. The politics are, in other words, well within the mainstream and certainly within the realm of foreign policy, and yet do not represent a fundamental break from the past. While I would argue that there is potential for a break, such an argument is purely speculative.

The second critical point is that we can now settle the question that Obama is not a candidate of a social movement. This does not mean that the Obama candidacy lacks for a mass base. Neither does it mean that the Obama candidacy has not tapped into significant mass sentiment for a rejection of the politics of both Bush and Clinton. What it does mean is that the recent shifts by Senator Obama, plus the choice of Joe Biden, while making a good degree of sense from the standpoint of mainstream campaign strategy, do not reflect a movement toward a new politics.

That said, I remain steadfast in support of the Obama candidacy. I do so because I am clear what the candidacy represents and what it does not. One does not have to support a candidate only because s/he represents a fundamental break with the past. Supporting candidates must be decided based upon an assessment of the moment, specifically, the overall balance of forces and the openings that can emerge through the victory of a specific candidate. In that regard, real politics are not the politics of anger and symbolism, but are the politics of coalition building with a long-term objective of changing the balance of power and, ultimately, introducing a new practice of politics.

In order to construct a real strategy, we have to be clear as to what stands before us. Throughout the months of the Obama campaign many activists - myself included - have cautioned against the deification of Barack Obama. Not only has the deification been a problem, it has led to the failure to recognize that receiving mass attention and gaining mass excitement does not equate with a social movement. Yes, people are in motion, but the motion is far from clear. They are looking for something different, but the objectives have not solidified. Rather, the mass base for the campaign rejects the corruption of the last eight years, but also rejects the velvet-covered steel bat of the Clinton era. This, however, does not translate, for example, into a movement against neo-liberal globalization. It is a sentiment for change. This is what distinguishes the candidacy - and its supporters - from a mass social movement.

We, on the Left side of the aisle, can build upon this sentiment if we reject symbolic politics of anger, and, if we are prepared to actually build progressive, grassroots electoral organizations that ally with other social movements. With regard to the symbolic politics of anger, frankly, we should have had enough of 3rd party candidacies that express our outrage with the two mainstream parties. Of course we are outraged, but our outrage, whether through third party candidacies or even many of our street demonstrations, is simply not enough. If we are really angry, then this must translate into a strategy based on the actual conditions we face in the USA.
[ Bill Fletcher, Jr., a co-founder of 'Progressives for Obama', is the Executive Editor of, a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and co-author of the book, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. ]

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