Saturday, November 22, 2008

Transition - Obama and the Progressives

For progressives who weren't sure yet, The New York Times spells it out:

President-elect Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination with the enthusiastic support of the left wing of his party, fueled by his vehement opposition to the decision to invade Iraq and by one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate.

Now, his reported selections for two of the major positions in his cabinet — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state and Timothy F. Geithner as secretary of the Treasury — suggest that Mr. Obama is planning to govern from the center-right of his party, surrounding himself with pragmatists rather than ideologues.
After eight years of the catastrophic combination of arrogance and incompetence that marked the Bush administration, I think most people are hoping Obama will be a pragmatic president.

It's disingenuous, however, for the New York Times to suggest that center-right Democrats are somehow free of ideology, as opposed to Democrats on the left. Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) always had a clearly defined set of beliefs, ideas and goals that they adhered to strictly as they moved the party to the right: privatization, corporatization, globalization, reducing the size of government, ending welfare, hawkish defense policies, etc. One can agree or disagree with the ideology of the Democratic center-right, but it's naive- or, as I suspect in the case of the Times, intellectually dishonest - to pretend it doesn't exist.

(Conversely, one can be on the left or right and still be pragmatic. I would argue that Russ Feingold and the late Paul Wellstone have been examples of this on the left.)

So, what does it mean for Obama to govern from the center-right? Only time will tell.

Before I'm accused of being disillusioned, I would argue that disillusionment arises from a large gap between expectation and reality. The real cure, then, for disillusionment is to see things as clearly as possible. So what is Obama's starting point? Is he a progressive who's moving to the right? Or has he always been in the center-right of the party? Progressives who believe Obama is "one of them" are the ones who are going to become disillusioned when they feel like he's "shifted" to the right.

Personally, I think Obama has always been closer to the center-right of the party. As I wrote in May 2007, after reading The Audacity of Hope, "His style of politics may be fresh, but I don't think you're going to find much difference, in the end, between Barack and Hillary."

Reviewing the same book, Publishers Weekly called Obama's policy positions "tepid Clintonism." With the exception of the invasion of Iraq, there was very little to distinguish the two candidates. Yet many Democrats fought each other furiously during the primaries over who was more progressive, Obama or Hillary. The battle reached an absurd peak during the run-up to the Ohio primary, when both sides tried to claim the other was a nefarious supporter of NAFTA.

The problem for Obama is that he was elected in large part by a new mobilized army of progressives. In the primaries, he defeated Hillary Clinton - who initially had all the advantages of money, party establishment support and name recognition - because he captured the technological innovations, the new-found fundraising power, the organizing skills, and the youthful energy of progressive groups such as MoveOn, DailyKos, and ActBlue. These same groups, along with the old-left machine of labor unions, helped him in the general election out-organize and out-spend McCain across the board.

The last center-right Democrat, Bill Clinton, betrayed the labor unions, who also helped get him elected, by shoving NAFTA through Congress against their wishes and despite his promises. What happens this time if a center-right Obama winds up opposing them on important legislation? Already, the bailout of the automobile industry may put this relationship to a test. Will they remember what Clinton did? How will they react?

When Clinton was initially elected after 12 years of Reagan and Bush, there was a great sense of relief among Democrats. But as his administration began to implement more and more of their center-right agenda, people opposed to those policies - environmentalists, labor unions, anti-globalization critics, etc. - began pushing back. Tensions culminated (in the United States) in the Battle of Seattle, and, electorally, in the Nader campaign of 2000. Several important environmentalists supported Nader, including David Brower, founder of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, who would say that the Clinton-Gore record on the environment "is worse than the Reagan-Bush record." This internal war within the Democratic party subsided for the most part after the tragedy of 9/11, and after an effort to join forces against the Bush administration. But it's a civil war that's been dormant not dead.

The public has placed incredibly high expectations upon Barack Obama. Many of these people are young, energetic and well-organized progressives. If Obama is ineffective, or if he moves too far to the right and doesn't deliver a sense of change, if he disappoints in general, their disillusionment could be equally historic.

Obama may, by nature and temperament, be in the center-right of the party. But he needs to pay attention to everyone who worked hard to get him elected. There are no political advantages in ignoring progressives or taking them for granted. They need to be included in the public conversation about the future of the country.

For their part, progressives need to see Obama clearly and know that he will govern from the center-right. If the administration is pragmatic, however, and not driven by ideology, then progressives can have confidence that their voices will be heard if they make effective arguments. They paid money to attend this ball; they have every right to be allowed on the dance floor.

What they cannot do is be naive about Obama's starting point and get disillusioned because he's "moving to the right." They cannot be passive-aggressive, letting resentment build up because the Democrats in charge are, once again, ignoring the progressives.

What happens, for example, to the relationship between Obama and progressive groups if he appoints John Brennan to head the CIA? Would that be a decision based on pragmatism? Or center-right ideology?

Yesterday, Glenn Greenwald at Salon opined on Obama's recent appointees and the prospect of Brennan:
I'm both entirely unsurprised and basically undisturbed by the fact that Obama's most significant appointments thus far are composed largely of standard Washington establishment figures and pro-Iraq-War hawks, and are devoid of people "on the Left". That is who Obama is -- he's an establishment politician who, with a few exceptions, is situated smack in the mainstream middle of the national Democratic Party. . . . As I've said many times, I intend to wait and judge Obama on the policies he pursues, not the administrators he appoints to carry out those policies.

But John Brennan is a different matter. To appoint someone as CIA Director or Director of National Intelligence who was one of George Tenet's closest aides when The Dark Side of the last eight years was conceived and implemented, and who, to this day, continues to defend and support policies such as "enhanced interrogation techniques" and rendition (to say nothing of telecom immunity and warrantless eavesdropping), is to cross multiple lines that no Obama supporter should sanction. Truly turning a page on the grotesque abuses of the last eight years requires both symbolism (closing Guantanamo) and substantive policy changes (compelling adherence to the Army Field Manual, ensuring due process rights for all detainees, ending rendition, restoring safeguards on surveillance powers). Appointing John Brennan to a position of high authority would be to affirm and embrace, not repudiate, the darkest aspects of the last eight years.

Greenwald may be okay with Hillary while Brennan bothers him; progressives with other agendas will be disturbed by other choices. What's happening, however, is a slow, steady realization on the part of many progressives that Obama's appointing a lot of center-right people and few if any progressives. How will they react?

The last major left upheaval in this country grew out of major disillusionment with the Democratic Party on the part of young people who were energized, organized, and represented a new generation with new technology. And they were first excited by a charismatic young president.

It will be interesting to see how this new generation of progressives - who are very different from the young radicals of the 1960s - responds to a center-right Obama presidency. Will they see him as pragmatic? Or will they see ideology in the guise of pragmatism? For the sake of the country, I hope it's the former and not the latter.


Jeff said...

I confesssed to feeling a bit uneasy about Obama during the primaries when the whole Austan Goolsbee flap took place (soothing the Canadians over Obama's populist rhetoric).

The Hillary choice at State troubles me... It bothers me more than choosing her as the Veep would have done.

On the other hand, are you cheered at all by the prospect of Henry Waxman taking over as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, from John Dingle? Is that a sign that Obama is very, very serous about taking on (and winning) fights on green issues, a new energy policy, and most important of all, health care?

Have you read David Sirota in Salon? Bush sets free-trade trap for Obama

Liam said...

Great post, batman.

I think a lot will happen in congress. I agree with Jeff that the Waxman thing is big. I'm still doing the wait and see.

cowboyangel said...


Funny you mention Sirota. I was originally going to add a line saying, "David Sirota will not be happy."

Thanks for the link to his article. I thought it was good that he tied Clinton's passage of NAFTA to the sweeping Democratic losses in 1994: "the payout came with a 1994 election whose NAFTA taint delivered 'a dramatic drop in turnout among members of union households,' decreased 'Democratic support in traditional areas of strength' -- and thus birthed the Republican Congress."

It has amazed me how easily Democrats forget this aspect of Clinton's presidency. The Republican attacks and Impeachment created a sympathy for Clinton among Democrats that seems to have wiped away any actual political thought about his administration. That was evident 10 years later, during the primaries, with some of the support for Hillary. Her supporters rarely, if ever, discussed her actual politics, the ideological background she operates out of. It was more about her being a woman - as if women couldn't be right-wingers??? - or some fond memories of her husband in office, which never seemed to include his actual policies and how they are still affecting us. Very frustrating dealing with this Clinton nostalgia.

Yes, I remember you posting on the Goolsbee thing. It was obvious back then, that neither Hillary nor Obama were going to swerve much from the neo-liberal free trade routine.

Yes, the Waxman chairmanship victory in Congress is a good sign. I'm not sure how much Obama had to do with that - sounds like it was more Nancy Pelosi who helped that happen. But it should benefit Obama if he wants to tackle a real energy plan.

And O's choice of Daschle should be good for a genuine battle over Health Care.

cowboyangel said...


Yes, a lot is going to happen in Congress. I think they will be more pro-active than the senate.

I'm trying to find a balance between "wait and see" and something more active. I don't want to "wait and see" progressives totally cut out of the administration. Don't want a repeat of the Clinton years. Progressives have more clout now than they did in the 1990s. They need to find a healthy and positive weight to wield that power. I'm personally trying to figure out what that means. I don't want it to be unnecessary and unproductive criticism of Obama, or trying to apply pressure in a way that would make him push back. But I do think they can't sit on their hands and just watch from the sidelines this time, afraid to act because Republicans might benefit.

I think that's what I want to hear discussed.