What Can We Expect from the New Administration?

Mark Solomon – Deerfield Progressive Forum – January 31, 2009

The election of Barack Obama was historic in innumerable ways. It was a crucial and powerful blow against right-wing reaction, portending a center-left realignment of the nation’s politics. It was an historic affirmation of centuries of struggle against racism – a struggle that continues with new inspiration. Obama’s election has opened an emphatic path to progressive change, a path that can lead to deeper, more transforming change. The motor for thoroughgoing progress is the multiracial working class in alliance with a vast array of social forces that worked for Obama’s election – youth, African Americans, Latinos and other people of color, women and progressive clusters of business and professions. The Obama victory reflects changing demographics in every region of the country that is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. The victory confirms an emerging progressive majority driven largely by a reenergized labor movement – a majority that must become more organized and able to connect the various issues confronting the country into a coherent political force for change. That is decisive for pressing the Obama administration in a more progressive direction. That is the profound challenge before all working people and their allies.

Some complaining voices on the left have already concluded that Obama is little more than a sophisticated vessel for empire whose domestic policies would only effect a limited downward distribution of wealth to salve a crisis-ridden economic structure. Some left observers anticipate disappointment by progressives with the Obama presidency as a necessary prelude to more radical change. (Ironically, that posture is echoed on the right by the repugnant Limbaugh who prays for Obama’s “failure” as a condition for stopping the administration’s alleged drift towards socialism.) One “left” observer recently cherry-picked his way through Obama’s inaugural address to discover that it was “crafted to appease the Republican right and signal continuity with its essential policies.” That claim led the observer to accuse those hopeful progressives of ignoring “what Obama actually said,” settling instead for “his very presence on the steps of the Capital and the massive crowd on the Washington Mall to symbolize change.”

That is a sad example of missing the human forest – and not seeing the trees either. The massive crowds that gave the inaugural historic resonance reflected a deeply hopeful unburdening of eight years of the most regressive and reactionary government in memory. It was a continuation of the impulse that drove the Obama candidacy in the first place – a pervasive longing for a change in the content and direction of the nation’s politics. That hope for change was exemplified by a mass movement of youth who played a central role in the building of the most sophisticated and effective grass roots organization in history – a campaign marked by brilliant use of new technology, but more important, the empowering of hundreds of thousands of largely new activists in a pyramiding organization guided by the slogan for recruiting volunteers: Respect, Empower, Include.

A few on the left gratuitously acknowledged the wellsprings of emotion unleashed by throngs of African Americans at the inaugural. In a dismissive bow to “racial pride,” some critics nevertheless continued to utter dire predictions of Obama’s failure to meet progressive expectations. However, those critics missed the point of the historic outpouring of African Americans’ joy and pride. During the campaign, black communities had muted their wishes for a civil rights agenda in the campaign so that Obama would not be marginalized as a “race candidate” thus presumably undermining his efforts to break through to white voters who remained mired in fears and prejudices. Yet, African Americans quietly provided the solid foundation for the Obama campaign. Despite the chatter about a “post racial society,” the strength and unity of the black vote propels a serious effort to fulfill Martin Luther King’s dream to defeat oppression by advancing the principle that racial equality is inseparable from social and economic justice for all working people. That was an underlying theme of Obama’s speech on race when the Reverend Wright controversy threatened to implode his campaign. As the most consistently progressive force in the country, the African American community represents a powerful impetus for lifting the burdens of war, joblessness, home foreclosures, collapsing health care, and failing education from all working people. That community represents a vital component for linking the worldwide struggle against racism to winning peace. That was reflected in Obama’s inaugural address when he said: “because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

The most significant element for the present and future in Obama’s ascension to the presidency is the gathering mass movement that put him in the White House. That movement represents the promise of a permanent progressive majority. It needs to be nurtured, deepened and strengthened to assure an irreversible path to progress.

The social movement that drove the Obama campaign is more vital than ever to fight Republican determination to wage class warfare against working people by attempting to destroy Obama’s evolving economic stimulus program to combat the worst depression since the 1930s.

Obama himself is no stranger to the importance of mass movements for change. During the campaign and beyond, he has consistently reminded his audiences that translating hope into change mandated massive mobilization at the grass roots. He routinely called upon his supporters to engage vigorously in struggles against entrenched interests, often pointing to the need to throw the weight of mass movements against the power of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries in fighting for reform of health care.

Obama is also no stranger to the symbols and substance of a progressive outlook. As an undergraduate at Occidental College and Columbia University he became involved in the movement to boycott apartheid South Africa. At Harvard Law School he engaged in battle to force the university to keep its commitment to hiring black female faculty.

Coming to Chicago in 1991 to work as a community organizer he confronted urban decay, jailed youth and “my brothers without prospects.” With rising anger (in his memoir” Dreams From My Father”) he said: “All too rarely do I hear people asking just what it is that we’ve done to make so many children’s hearts so hard, or what collectively we might do to right their moral compass … Instead I see us doing what we’ve always done – pretending that these children are not our own.”

During his presidential campaign Obama recited a litany of struggles that arose from hope – the hope of colonists in the American Revolution that their struggle would win independence; the hope to end slavery and the struggles of slaves and abolitionists to achieve that goal; the hope for a better life in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s through battles to build the union movement and the New Deal; the hope to end fascism in World War II and the struggles of a generation to achieve that end; the hope for freedom and equality embodied in the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s.

After winning the nomination, Obama rankled at the assertion that he was now shifting to the center. He ran off a list of progressive measures that he avidly supported – universal health care, fair taxes, and early childhood education. But he had reneged on a promise to fight renewal of The Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA); he appeared to back away from an unqualified commitment to end US military involvement in Iraq; he called for an expanded combat role for US forces in Afghanistan; he repeated his advocacy of “hot pursuit” of Taliban fighters into Pakistan “if Pakistan refused to act.” Speaking to AIPAC, Obama called for an “undivided” Jerusalem in perhaps unintended rejection of UN resolutions. (He later “clarified” his statement claiming that he only meant that Jerusalem “should not be divided by barbed wire.”) On domestic social issues Obama tacked to the right of the conservative Supreme Court, criticizing it for a ruling that limited the death penalty.

Progressive commentator John Nichols has pointed out that Obama “knows exactly what it means to say he is a progressive.” That includes understanding the subtle nuances on the left between being called a “liberal” (not just the right wing canard, but the posture of temporizing and retreat) and being called a progressive that connotes a principled commitment to social change.

But Nichols also said: “knowing the ideals and values of the left is not the same as practicing them.” That perhaps is the core of the challenge in engaging the Obama presidency. There is immensely positive potential reflected by Obama’s experience and his intellectual reach. But that potential is tempered, though not negated, by his caution borne of a pragmatic philosophy that is bound up in a political calculus sensitive to the realities of power.

Even as his fervent call for change captured the imaginations of millions, Obama’s ideas and policies were always at the liberal center of the political spectrum. (It seems like light years ago that many progressives viewed the early candidacies of Kucinich, Edwards and Richardson to be to the left of Obama’s.) Obama’s speech that electrified the Democratic national convention in 2004 (and thrust him into the national limelight) was laden with centrist allusions to national unity and compromise. It was there that he sounded his mantra that most of the country was fed up with partisan bickering between the two major parties, between conservative “red states” and liberal “blue states,” between women and men, black and white, gay and straight, (and portentously) between rich and poor.

Running for President, he stood above race and class. He avoided speaking in ideological terms and even when calling for the right to health care, or to organize unions, or to be protected against thieving mortgage lenders – he spoke of collective will and building community across ideological lines. Such a politics of “unity” suggested that what is wrong with politics is the way it is conducted, rather than its service to corporate wealth and military power.

Obama’s penchant for pragmatic compromises and straddling a line through the center can be traced to important influences on this thought. Obama’s three years of community organizing in predominantly black neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side was influenced by famed organizer Saul Alinsky who rejected broad strategic objectives and ideology (including visions of transforming change). Despite much radical posturing, Alinsky perceived a vastly imperfect world that was essentially suitable to cutting deals and compromises with those who hold power.

Another influence was the cold war theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who railed against “millennial” and “perfectionist” systems (like the USSR) that did not grasp the fact that human beings were naturally flawed and “fallen.” For humankind there was only awareness of its own imperfection in fighting evil; ts moral compulsions must be based on geopolitical realism, experimentalism and pragmatism. (Given his generational experience, there is no evidence that Obama adopted the Niebuhr’s anti-communism that was embraced by 50s intellectuals. Yet, there are strong traces of Nieibuhr’s geopolitical toughness in Obama’s approach to “the war on terror.”)

What then does Obama represent? He certainly is not anti-imperialist. His thinking does not (and cannot from the standpoint of political reality) embrace the notion that the United States is imperialist. He seeks to render the US’s global reach consonant with the complexities of capitalist globalization and its requirement that US foreign policy be calibrated to the needs and interests of a global system that mandates multilateral cooperation among the principal centers of world capitalism. He represents that sector of the United States’ ruling class that wishes to make its global interest more effective, to reverse Bush’s reckless unilateralism and to break the cycle of anger and opposition to the United States spawned by the disastrous global policies of the Bush administration.

From that outlook, Obama advocates opening dialogue with the United States’ adversaries. He will use diplomacy to pursue mutual agreements in regional conflicts that would maintain an “open door” for US interests. Before relying on “hard” military power, Obama will use “soft power” (economic aid, cultural contacts, etc.) in dealing with perceived foreign antagonists. He probably is open to compromises with Russia regarding Bush’s push for deployment of an anti-missile system in Central and Eastern Europe. With China, the Obama administration will rhetorically take a hard line on human rights issues; it will complain about the alleged low valuation of Chinese currency, but will not undermine the massive dependence of the collapsing US financial system upon Chinese investment in treasury bonds.

Obama will most likely pressure Iraq’s factions to make political accommodations as he gradually withdraws combat forces. However, perhaps 50,000 troops would remain to guard US facilities and continue attacks upon alleged al-Qaeda pockets. That opens the prospect of a large remaining force whose presence might result in the establishment of permanent bases – a major objective of the original architects of the Iraq adventure. That would pose a challenge to the peace movement to keep building a pole of resistance to continuing US involvement in Iraq.

He has already advocated the softening (but not the removal) of the blockade of Cuba. That is a wedge for a coalition of agricultural interests, manufacturers and peace activists to press for a total lifting of the blockade.

With Iran, Obama will exercise diplomacy, stress concessions for an end to uranium enrichment and invite Iran to explorations of new regional security arrangements. At the same time, Obama and his advisors might not readily accept Iran’s emerging dominance of the region and might attempt to maintain military and naval forces ringing that country.

Afghanistan represents the most crucial, and foreboding danger to the success of Obama’s presidency. His intent to move 30,000 additional US forces into an historic quagmire that has always consumed all invading outside powers is a source of grave concern. The recent missile attacks on alleged Taliban strongholds in Pakistan, resulting in civilian casualties, is very disturbing. However, recent remarks by Obama that he will seek “hard peace” in the region perhaps indicates an awareness of the awful snares involved in pursuing a “war on terror” and aggrandizing the economic and strategic interests of the warfare state. Peace and stability (and pursuit of Al-Qaeda remnants) in the volatile Pakistan-Afghanistan region require international and regional cooperation, economic development and inclusion of all elements of Afghan society in forging a genuinely representative regime. Obama’s outstretched hand to the Muslim world represents a promising departure from previous US policies.

Despite Obama’s lavish bows to organizations defending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and his painful silence as President-elect in the face of the slaughter in Gaza, his appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy to the region (and his apparent rejection of the strongly pro-Israel Dennis Ross) is encouraging. While the hope for a two-state solution to the conflict is increasingly strangled by the massive settler movement, it is possible that the “realist” wing of the US ruling class may pursue a more balanced US approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its own strategic interest and encourage a more even-handed policy by the Obama administration. An energized peace movement will need to press its firm opposition to the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands while calling for and an end to US weapons to Israel as basic requirements in addressing that core issue that lies at the heart of regional tensions.

There can be no illusion that Obama, without major counter pressures, would depart from the untouchable requirements of the intersecting national security and warfare states, the essential institutions of US imperialism. Given the unchallenged and deeply rooted power of the warfare state and its national security component, he will continue to call for “rebuilding our military” and advocate selective interventions. At this juncture, it is not possible to occupy White House without obeisance to those institutions.

Only a mass movement with a growing grasp of the imperial nature of US global policies and a determination to chart a qualitatively different path can breach that line. Obama’s representation of the multilateralist and “realist” wing of the ruling class offers an opening to an increasingly politically educated public to press for a deeper transformation of US global policies.

In his inaugural address Obama said: “… our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us do to as we please. Instead, our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” That statement expectedly does not, and cannot, delve beneath the surface of imperial self-serving declarations to touch the essence of imperial destructiveness. Nor does it reconcile the contradiction between its gentle words and missile attacks that kill civilians. But after eight years of imperial recklessness and disaster, it strikes a tone of relative modesty and institutional high mindedness. Again, progressives should see it as an opening for winning a constructive diplomacy-oriented foreign policy.

On domestic policies, Obama reflects the outlook of the less nakedly exploitative sector of the ruling class that acknowledges and supports significant government intervention to save the capitalist system from its worst abuses. His brand of “entrepreneurship” rejects the “low road” anti-labor tactics of corporations like Wal-Mart and encourages trade union growth, including support for the pivotal Employee Free Choice Act. His willingness to review free trade policies to assure decent labor and environmental standards has earned him crucial support from the union moment.

Obama acknowledges the crisis of climate change, advocating large-scale government programs to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Most significant, his economic stimulus and recovery program to confront the economic crisis combines the need to generate new employment with the creation of millions of “green jobs” dedicated to converting the country’s infrastructure to clean energy sources. By combining urgent environmental and economic issues, Obama has opened a door to a grand alliance of environmental and labor activists.

Overriding all domestic considerations is the worldwide economic crisis of unprecedented proportions. The essence of the crisis lies within the capitalist system itself: its exploitation of labor, making it impossible for workers to claim the full fruit of their production – a crucial portion of which is appropriated by capital as profit. In recent years, the weak economic standing of working people was further undermined by corporate globalization that shipped jobs to cheap labor markets; unions were seriously weakened and the wage and living standards of millions of workers stagnated.

For decades the system has cohered based on the creation of various systems of credit. The result has been nearly unimaginable debt carried by working people. Forty-four percent of corporate profits now come from finance; only ten percent of profits come from a “real economy” based on manufacturing. Debt has been parlayed by the growing financial sector into a staggering shell game. It is packaged into various exotic tools, and passed around the financial world at huge profit (money to make money) until the edifice crumbles from the inability of masses to pay its mounting debts. The root of the housing foreclosure crisis and the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market is simply the inability of millions of people to pay their inflated mortgages. Dwarfing the foreclosure crisis (that threatens to engulf more than three million additional mortgagees in 2009) is more than eighteen trillion dollars in consumer debt held by banks and other financial institutions.

The systematic destruction over the last three decades of restraints on the financial system has deepened the global crisis. Heavily financialized capitalism is experiencing a breakdown of liquidity. In one of the classic scandals of modern history, the government has handed the financial industry $350 billion (the first installment of nearly $800 billion) to allegedly clean out toxic mortgages and reinstitute the flow of credit upon which capitalism depends. But the large financial institutions have resisted the revival of credit to “risky” borrowers, vying instead to gobble up weaker banks and expend the largesse upon outrageous CEO bonuses. The cost of the Iraq war and maintenance the warfare state have contributed to a debt that is trying the patience of the US’s creditors. On the international plane globalized capitalism with its vaunted “free trade” mantra has resulted in displacement of populations, widespread hunger and disease and the intensification of poverty in major areas of the globe.

That is the desperate situation handed to Obama. Of course he will not be able to solve the endemic problems of capitalism. Only a thoroughgoing social transformation will do that. But the crisis can be ameliorated through large infusions of government capital to revive credit and restore jobs by rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, its educational and health care systems – crucially by restoring purchasing power to working people. That approach based roughly on the theories of John Maynard Keynes was partially adopted by FDR, cushioning the worst ravages of the Great Depression.

Obama has proposed an $825 billion spending program, including $250 billion in tax cuts (a concession in part to the Republicans). Leading liberal and progressive economists have stated that at least two trillion dollars in government spending is needed to make a significant dent in unemployment. It is likely that the intractable economic situation will force the Obama administration to call for greater spending to stem the foreclosure crisis, aid state and local governments now in crisis, support the incomes of the elderly, create millions of “green jobs” to transform the nation’s manufacturing and transportation infrastructure from fossil fuels to clean energy, provide fairly secure jobs for millions of female workers and advance national “Medicare for all” health insurance. Despite his present statements, he will have to scale back wasteful and unproductive military spending.

Obama’s efforts at this moment to “reach across the aisle” to Republicans has been greeted with contempt. The Republicans are waging class warfare on working people by trying to stripp the stimulus package of its job-generating content and substituting their traditional demand for tax cuts, especially for corporations (but not assistance for the poorest workers). Their obstruction of the appointment of Rep. Hilda Solis as labor secretary because of hergreat support for the Employee Free Choice Act underscores the scurrilous anti-labor policies of that bloc. The social movement that drove the Obama campaign is needed (with the addition of more allies) to defeat right wing attempts to undermine efforts to stem the worst effects of the crisis.

Many progressives were disappointed with Obama’s cabinet appointments, viewing them largely as retreads of the temporizing, centrist Clinton administration. Yet, that disappointment fails to take into account the fact that the Bush neo-conservative cabal is gone; that Obama will he a hands-on President who will guide the policies of his administration; most significant, the magnitude of the present crisis renders shopworn centrist policies indigestible and forces the likes of Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers to jettison their anti-regulation agendas of past years and to embrace a vigorous Keynesian program of economic pump priming. In sum, the center has shifted towards the left. The responsibility of a unified progressive force is to press that center even further leftward as mounting layoffs and spreading economic paralysis worsens.

The first week of the Obama administration has shown great promise. Executive orders have been issued that set in motion the closing of despicable Guantanamo; torture has been banned; the president has ordered full compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (a condition for holding the Bush cabal to account for its illegal actions); the ban has been lifted on funding for organizations that encourage family planning; science is experiencing new respect as constraints on stem cell research are ended, a serious envoy has been sent to the Middle East; Obama has given his first interview to a respected Arab network. Those are important steps to build on. And – labor has been welcomed back to the White House; the law signed by President Obama was the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Obama’s centrist and pragmatic politics lie between contending poles of right-center and left-center. His presidency is a new battleground between ruling class interests that would exploit the yearning for an end to vicious partisanship to get what they want and the demands of a growing progressive movement for substantive change.

Critical to a positive outcome to the battle is the forging of an effective grass roots movement. Of great significance is the unprecedented founding of “Organizing for America” by the Obama organization. Building on a list of over 13 million names and the experiences of tens of thousands of local organizers, Obama clearly intends to mobilize that huge constituency to press for adoption of his program. That is critically important. But that program falls short of a solidly progressive agenda and compels the left to engage with “Organizing for Obama” to constructively work for deeper change.

A united left pole of influence can oblige the Obama movement to press for a larger and more working class-oriented stimulus program; it needs to press for a end to the war in Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq; it needs to call for an inclusive “Medicare for All” national health plan, it needs to press Obama to hold firm in support of the Employee Free Choice Act; it must insist on dealing with climate change as a priority; it should press for no loopholes in the ban on torture and prosecution of the crimes of the Bush administration; it needs to vigorously pursue justice for the Palestinians and Palestinian-Israeli peace, it must call for an end to the persecution of immigrants by meeting their just demands with a fair and reliable road to permanent status and citizenship.

As the ravages of the Depression (its no longer a recession) spread, the left also has an obligation to advance deeper and more transforming ideas such as democratic, public ownership of banks and financial institutions as the way to end the destructive practices of financialized capitalism. It can advance the concept of public ownership of energy as the assured way to end the stranglehold of fossil fuels and launch a new era of clean energy.

In building a progressive majority of left and center, we need a mature, unified left committed to building links to the new, surging movements activated by the Obama phenomenon. We need a movement that integrates seamlessly the triple crises of a collapsing economy (including crises in health care, education housing), climate change and a fruitless, lethal imperial global policy. We need a movement that can transcend the single-issue concerns of many progressive groups that often deny them the ability to respond in timely, effective fashion to the most pressing needs of the moment.

The election of Barack Obama is indeed an historic watershed. It holds out the promise of a major realignment of the nation’s politics. For the first time in memory, this presidency actually is calling upon a gathering grass roots movement to actively “make change from the bottom up.” The dangers of the moment are dire. But the opportunities are enormous – and compelling.

Let us seize this moment to finally end the reign of the right wing and set the country solidly on the road to a progressive, democratic, just and peaceful future.