Barack Obama,By Mark Solomon
Right Wing Frenzy
-- and the Left
Progressives for Obama
Some have pointed at past attacks on Democratic presidents to contend that there is every little about the current hysteria that has not been seen before. But there is something different about the frenzied and relentless right wing assault on Barack Obama. The vitriolic fear mongering and lies about Obama's health care reform, the calculated fanning of racism and anti- communism, organized disruptions of congressional town meetings replete with gun-toting intimidators, slanderous and frenzied attacks without boundaries -- constitute a qualitative leap into an abyss of violent rhetoric and occasional violent acts that have rarely been seen before.
Fueling that frenzy is significant right wing corporate money that has heavily financed emerging groups that have galvanized protests on the right. Among those formations, some have cynically appropriated symbols from the American Revolution to manipulate and sustain anger against Obama and the government through contrived "tea parties" and vitriolic demonstrations freighted with racist smears.
The most reactionary sectors of the corporate elite (especially oil, gas coal and insurance money) are not impressed by Obama's cautious and at times temporizing policymaking. Obama's appeals to bipartisanship regularly fall on deaf ears. The right is not encouraged by centrist policies that fall well within sustaining the institutional domination of capital. Rather, it senses that the country is at a dangerous transformational moment -- symbolized by the Obama presidency. Eight years of right wing rule brought severe blows that led to the right's defeat in 2008. The toll of Wall Street's financial collapse and the economic crisis of rising joblessness and social dislocation, the drain of resources from the hopeless Iraq war and the more hopeless Afghan venture, health care and environmental crises, assorted scandals that shredded Washington's claim to moral authority -- all led to a powerful convergence of various forces -- labor, youth, women, African Americans, Latinos and other nationalities that responded to Obama's call for change.
It is both the potential to advance a more democratic and egalitarian society inherent in the Obama presidency and the power of an emerging progressive majority that is the target of the right wing assault. Both represent for the right a frightening promise of social transformation. Whatever the insufficiencies of Obama's health proposals, the right wing (abetted by assorted "moderates") senses in those proposals an historic effort to undermine vast privately held wealth by effecting a major redistribution of that wealth. The right rails against a tepid "public option" because it perceives an historic precedent -- a "slippery slope" according to their house intellectuals at the Weekly Standard --to government "socialist" control of the health care industry.
The heavy infusion of funds into the campaign against health care reform and against the Obama presidency has abetted the rallying of a large constituency representing a complex and often bewildering array of ideologies and programs. But some elements of that convergence of right wing forces are clear. The historic ascendancy of an African American to the presidency has stirred deep wellsprings of racism grounded in paranoid fear that racial and national minorities are taking wealth and power from whites -- ironically wealth and power that they never possessed. The wail of a demonstrator in Washington that "we want our country back" was a plea for the return of unmitigated white supremacy -- for a world unaltered by irresistible social and demographic change, for reversal of African American advance symbolized by Obama, for ending immigration spawned by the upheavals of globalization. Immigration has now broadened the range of racism, stoking the anxieties of a major sector of the right wing movement.
Anti-communism, another weapon of the right wing arsenal, deeply embedded in the country's history, has been revived to paint Obama as variously a communist or socialist (or perversely as a fascist, a hypocritical manipulation of a most frightening image by a fascist- tinged current). Anti-communism has been resurrected as "big government" driven by jack boots running health care and enforcing a a reversal of the "natural order" of white supremacy.
Finally, right wing populism has been reintroduced to exploit genuine anxieties of those who fear impending economic collapse, long-term joblessness, and a government that has, especially in the last decade, remorselessly lied to them. Right wing trends in populism of the late 19th century berated banks and railroads while directing the rage of white farmers and workers towards on African Americans (actually abetting those banks and railroads). Current rightist populism demagogically mimics working class anger at multi- trillion dollar bailouts to banks. It utilizes the old McCarthyite tactic of attacking "liberal elites" that allegedly manipulate the powers of government to coerce the mass with unwanted and repressive programs. Beneath the anti-corporate rhetoric is the real objective--to cultivate searing hatred for government --- at least government that has been obliged to seek social cohesion by pursuing modest steps towards equality.
Orchestrated by corporate and Republican operatives and Fox media, the racists, anti-communists, anti- environmentalists, anti-choice and anti-gay rights elements, "birthers," "tea baggers," religious fundamentalists, anti-taxers -- and some driven by confusion, fear and desperation in an imploding economy -- are bound together by a single, overriding factor: resentment and anger at Barack Obama as the symbol of unwelcome change and the power of liberal government. That animus towards Obama enabled a distinct minority to nevertheless galvanize its splintered constituencies, to frame the political debate and to overshadow the broad forces that drove Obama to the White House. While analogies are never perfect, it is instructive to recall that a clear minority, driven by paranoia, anti-Semitic scapegoating, racism and nationalism in early 1930s Germany was able to take power in the face of a paralyzed center and a divided left. The stakes in the current right wing drive to decapitate the Obama presidency and restore the Bush nightmare (or worse) require clear-eyed resistance to the right wing's attempts to undermine Obama and crucially, to topple the broad social movement that brought him to the presidency.
On the left, there appears to be a general understanding of the importance of stanching the right wing offensive against the present administration -- while subjecting that administration to grass roots pressure to steer it in a progressive direction. However, some influential left voices are engaging in an one-dimensional attacks on Obama that sow confusion, demoralization and demobilization that however unintentional, detract from the primary need to combat the right wing. (The pseudo-left fringe that defines Obama as a stalking horse for a ruling class conspiracy is not considered in this article.)
For example, a prominent peace activist, demonstrating against Obama at his Martha's Vineyard vacation site declared that in calling Bush a war criminal we must also call Obama a war criminal. Another voice on the left recently published a more sophisticated, but no less disorienting attack in an article titled "Bush's Third Term? You're Living It." Faithful to its title, the article, posted on prominent left websites, recites a catalog of deeply institutionalized imperial and national security polices passed from administration to administration -- the largest military budget in history, defense of executive privilege, continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a "Bush third term" honeycombed with Wall St. operatives that orchestrated the massive bailout of the finance industry. The point, of course, is that Bush's third term is Obama first term.
To reach that conclusion a selective scalpel had to be applied to Obama's brief record as President. Some comparisons with Bush ("continuing his policy of extraordinary rendition") are questionable. Torture have been formally ruled out by the present administration. But rendition, though not clearly rejected, is nearly paralyzed by hesitancy. Other aspects of military and national security policy such as complete withdrawal from Iraq, escalation in Afghanistan, release of White House visitor logs, torture indictments, claims of executive privilege -- are either yet to be finalized or are frozen for the moment by internal conflicts within the administration.
The "Bush third term" analogy also requires the omission of Obama policies that reflect the influence of the multilateralist wing of the military and foreign policy establishment -- to an extent the influence of progressive forces. Can one imagine George W. Bush opening the door to the elimination of nuclear weapons? Would Bush have canceled the provocative European missile shield that has riled the Russians? However tenuous and cautious the Obama approach, would Bush have opened the door to Cuba? Would he have condemned the Honduras coup? In the domestic sphere, it is unimaginable that George W. Bush would launch a major stimulus, however short of overwhelming need, to boost a shattered economy, to call for Wall St. re- regulation, for institutionalized consumer protection and for urgent attention to the environmental crisis?
Pointing out positive aspects of Obama's brief record is not meant to negate justified criticism or to offer a mechanical balance sheet devoid of analysis of its principal elements.Some of his administration's policy choices are riven by serious contradictions such as its claim to re-ignite a Latin American good neighbor policy that is undercut by a plan to establish military bases in Columbia or its demand for a freeze on Israeli settlements that is countered by its retreat before Netanyahu and its obstruction of the Goldstone report on Israeli crimes in Gaza. However, to close our eyes to the positive and to offer one-dimensional condemnation is to perilously neglect the internal splits in ruling circles that provide openings for progressives and to weaken the spirit and resolve of progressives to reinvigorate the social movement that brought Obama to the presidency.
Those Obama policies that reinforce imperial strategic interests and the dominance of the financial sector should be subjected to criticism and opposition -- first and foremost from the forces that put him in office. Obama the candidate promised change, but he is a cautious, pragmatic politician who bends at times to the left (especially when he feels the weight of that "bottom up" movement that he talked about when campaigning) but who carefully assesses and responds to the pressures of powerful ruling blocs that oppose his agenda. President Barack Obama understands a progressive platform. His recent media interviews demonstrated an acute understanding of single payer health care and of various forms of socially grounded health programs around the world. But given his assessment of the power of insurance and pharmaceutical interests arrayed against even tepid reform, Obama was not going to carry the ball for meaningful universal health care without a powerful, united push from his left. Standing in the wings are forces, at least as powerful as those opposed to universal health care, geared to prevent serious measures to combat the environmental crisis and to stop the Employee Free Choice Act. Defeating those forces requires the urgent unity of a reinvigorated progressive movement.
Crucial to the fight against the right wing offensive is the need to pressure the Obama administration to sharpen its policies in a progressive direction.The administration's vague and temporizing approach to vital issues like health care undermines the clarity and vitality of the majority on the left and center, thus weakening the fight against the right. Organizing for America, the 13-million-person list of Obama supporters has had little success in urging its members to mobilize to support vaguely-defined "quality health care," thus stifling efforts to counter the resurgence of the right wing and to reach out and win that large segment on the right that is motivated by deep economic insecurity and distrust of government. The task of invigorating Organizing for America falls to the left which should be involved in reawakening the progressive agenda that largely motivated the Obama coalition in the first place.
A way forward at this critical juncture is suggested by an event that took place in Boston in late September to "talk back to the G20." A packed public meeting at Northeastern University was sponsored by the Majority Agenda Project -- dedicated to the principle of the inseparability of the crises in the economy, the environment and foreign policy and need to mobilize the majority that supports progressive policies to stem those crises. The meeting before a predominantly young, multiracial audience was addressed by an economist who briefly surveyed the damaging bailout of the financial system; by a student whose parents are now jobless and who may be forced to leave college, by two Latina housekeepers at the Boston Hyatt Hotel who were replaced by contract workers at half their wages (bringing many in the audience to tears), by two African American women fighting foreclosure of their homes, by a sociologist who produced data to demonstrate the country is center-left not center- right, by a young Iraq war veteran who made the connection between wasteful military spending and the crisis at home, by a medical doctor who described through personal experience the magnitude of the crisis in health care, by an African American environmental activist who surveyed the fight against climate catastrophe in his community and a by leader of the Massachusetts Green-Rainbow Party who drew together the many strands of crisis into a coherent whole. In reporting on the results small group discussion, a student pointed out that the meeting had put a human face on growing suffering, had demonstrated the inseparability of the various crises and the compelling need for all those affected by those crises and working for change to stand together.
The country is again at a critical crossroads that may well determine the outcome of the fight against the right wing and the fate of a progressive agenda. Whether the war in Afghanistan will be escalated or whether a path will be taken to ending US and NATO intervention will impact a range of issues from a a new stimulus to create green jobs, to solving the crisis of health care, to serious engagement with the impending climate catastrophe. In coming days, the rallies, protests and lobbying to end the war in Afghanistan should be the basis for the broadest movement to embrace the thousands who converged in Detroit to seek minimal aid in paying rent and utilities to the military families, to the millions of jobless, to the millions who are caught in the health care crisis and to all of us facing the environmental crisis. Now is the time to resurrect the alliance that defeated the right in 2008. That fight goes on and so must the quest for the unity of all progressive forces.