Monday, April 25, 2011

How Do We Respond to Obama?

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
April 21, 2011

Rather than dwell on the question of whether we can
bring Obama home, whether he ever was home, etc., I
want to refocus on this question of how to respond to
him, particularly as we start to think about 2012.

First, what do we now say about 2008? Contrary to those
who have thrown up their hands and feel betrayed by
what the Obama administration has not done, I start in
a different place. I continue to assert that Obama was
knowable in 2008. He was a charismatic, smart candidate
who made the right call on the Iraq War and stepped out
on the issue when it was necessary. He was also, as I
said at the time, someone who could appear to be
different things to different people. The problem was
that too many of his supporters saw what they wanted to
see rather than what existed.

What existed? Well, from the beginning he was a
corporate candidate. We knew that. The question was not
whether he was one but the extent to which his views
could be shifted in order to take progressive, non-
corporate stands. Second, he was a candidate who was
going to avoid race as you or I would avoid a plague
ship. He went out of his way to prove that he was not
an `angry black man' and that race was not going to be
an issue that he would harp on. Third, he was clear
that he wanted to change the image of the USA around
the world, but it was not clear to what extent he
wanted to change the substance of the relationship of
the USA to the rest of the world.

Raising these and other issues in 2008 was exceedingly
difficult. Raising concerns regarding Obama and his
views in 2008, even when one offered critical support
to the campaign (as did I), was often met with
accusations of throwing a wet towel on a fire, and
other such metaphors. Of course, there were those who
denounced Obama all the way, but they offered very
little as an alternative, with the exception of what we
must frankly characterize as symbolic political action.
What these fierce critics failed to address was how to
account for and speak with the masses of people from
various social movements who were gravitating toward
Obama's campaign, individuals and groups looking to
create something very different in the USA (and around
the world). In fact, it was because of these masses of
people, incorrectly described as a "movement" by some
but certainly an energized base, and the potential of
that base to become a transformative force, that it was
correct to critically support the Obama campaign,
despite the limitations of the campaign and the

What did we learn? We learned immediately that it was a
mistake to give any elected official, but particularly
someone reflecting more `center' politics, a honeymoon.

Virtually every social movement and organization
stepped back in the interest of providing Obama space.
It did not work. There was space, alright, but the
political Right seized it.

We also should have learned that it is not about the
`man' but it is about the administration. We, African
Americans, tend to focus too much on Obama-the-man. We
like his speeches. He is smart and seems to have a
great family. He sounds so sincere. He understands and
appreciates our culture. That is all well and good, but
Obama-the-man is not as important as Obama-the-
administration. This became all too clear during the
Honduras coup in 2009. A democratically elected
government was overthrown in a coup. Obama initially
condemned this but then did nothing to unseat the `coup
people' (a term made famous by President George H.W.
Bush in 1991, describing those who overthrew President
Gorbachov in the then Soviet Union). Not only that, his
administration took steps to keep the democratically
elected president out of office and came up with a so-
called compromise that resulted in the forces of the
wealthy elite returning to power. In that sense, it
does not matter whether we like Obama as a person; it
is a matter of what we say about the policies of his

Of course, we had a more recent example of this when no
one from the administration could quite explain why the
return of Haitian President Aristide from South Africa
was being opposed by the US government. Does Obama like
or hate Aristide? It does not matter; what matters are
the actions of the Obama administration.

What should we do? First, we have to focus on policies
rather than intent. Those who uncritically supported
Obama in 2008 should not feel ashamed but neither
should they now flip into despair or abstentionism. We
have to keep in mind that this administration, as all
administrations, is affected by pressure. This
administration SEEMS to be more affected by pressure
from the political Right than pressure from
progressives and those on the Left but that is largely
because the left and progressives have failed to offer
sustained pressure on the administration. At each
moment that many left and progressives stand up to the
administration, they are more often than not met with
bared teeth and a growl, which then results in silence
on our part. The political Right understands that
pressure is not about barking. It is about biting.

So, in this sense, it is not about bringing Obama home.

It is about pressuring him to do not only what he has
promised but to go beyond what he has promised. This
will not come about through email exchanges or social
media, but it will come about through building mass
pressure. What could this look like?

    1. Forget running a candidate against Obama in
    2012. That would be a sure way to alienate much of
    his black and Latin base. Instead, there needs to
    be a progressive strategy focused on Congressional

    races. That means identifying key races to run
    genuine progressive candidates against conservative
    Democrats and/or Republicans.

    2.  We need to build an electoral organization
    that can run such candidates. There are examples of
    these around the country but we need to expand,
    ultimately building something at the national level
    that rivals the vision of the National Rainbow
    Coalition from the late 1980s. It needs to be an
    organization that has a mass base and can run
    candidates inside and outside the Democratic Party.

    3.  We desperately need mass action. Wisconsin was
    wonderful for many reasons but one important one
    was the sustained presence in the capitol. A
    protest movement focused on power needs to be
    prepared to break the law, not through the actions
    of a few individuals, but much as happened in
    Wisconsin, as well as in the Civil Rights movement,
    with masses of people making a situation untenable.
    But we have to also develop key strategic targets
    for our actions where we are clear on what we want
    them to do. This will largely happen at the local
    level at first, but it can also happen at the
    national level, such as through selective boycotts.

    4. We have to think and act globally and locally.
    We must link with social movements around the world
    challenging US foreign policy, providing such
    movements with whatever level of support we can. We
    cannot allow more Honduras coup situations, and we
    have to make it clear that US policy in Afghanistan
    is a disaster.

None of these "to dos" had Obama's name on them. That
is because we are not simply confronting or attempting
to influence an individual. We are up against an empire
and the spokesperson for that empire happens to be

someone in whom many people placed excessive hope. The
hope should have rested with the millions who supported
him and were seeking a better day. Those are the people
upon whom we need to focus so that we can go beyond the

Obama moment and move in a progressive direction.

 Originally published on Editorial Board member, Bill
Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute
for Policy Studies, the immediate past president
ofTransAfrica Forum and co-author of Solidarity
Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path
toward Social Justice(University of California Press),
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