Transformational president or another disappointment? That's up to us
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Barack Obama, it is true, is a transformational leader. But he needs a transformational movement to become a transformational president.
He is transformational not only by his charisma and brilliance, but by embodying the possibility of an African American being chosen president in the generation following the civil rights movement. Whether he wins or loses, the vast movement inspired by Obama will become the next generation of American social activists.
For many Americans, the possibility of Obama is a deeply personal one. I mean here the mythic Obama who exists in our imaginations, not the literal Obama whose centrist positions will disappoint many progressives.
Myths are all-important, as Obama writes in Dreams from My Father (Three Rivers Press, 2004). Fifty years ago, the mythic Obama existed only as an aspiration, an ideal, in a country where interracial love was taboo and interracial marriage was largely banned. As Obama himself declared on the night of the Iowa primary, "Some said this night would never come."
The early civil rights movement, the jazz musicians, and the Beat poets dreamed up this mythic Obama before the literal Obama could materialize. His African father and white countercultural mother dared to dream and love him into existence, incarnate him, at the creative moment of the historic march on Washington. Only the overthrow of Jim Crow segregation opened space for the dream to rise politically.
In one of his best oratorical moments, Obama summons the spirit of social movements built from the bottom up, from the Revolutionary War to the abolitionist crusade, to the women's suffrage cause, to the eight-hour day and the rights of labor, ending with the time of his birth when the walls came down in Selma and Montgomery, Ala., and Delano. As he repeats this mantra of movements thousands of times to millions of Americans, a new cultural understanding becomes possible. This is the foundation of a new American story that is badly needed.
Obama's emerging narrative also includes but supercedes the other major explanation of American specialness, the narrative of the "melting pot," by noting that whatever "melting" did occur was always in the face of massive and entrenched opposition from the privileged.
John McCain represents a very different aspect of the American story. His inability to limit the adventurist appetite for war is the most dangerous element of the McCain, and the Republican, worldview. It is paralleled, of course, by their inability to limit the corporate appetite for an unregulated market economy. In combination, the brew is an economy directed to the needs of the country club rich, the oil companies, and military contractors. A form of crony capitalism slouches forward in place of either competitive markets or state regulation.
Yet McCain has a good chance, the best chance among Republicans, of winning in November. He appeals to those whose idea of the future is more of the past, buying time against the inevitable. And McCain is running against Obama, who threatens our institutions and culture simply by representing the unexpected and unauthorized future.
My prediction: if he continues on course, Obama will win the popular vote by a few percentage points in November, but will be at serious risk in the Electoral College. The institution, rooted in the original slavery compromise, may be a barrier too great to overcome.
The priority for Obama supporters has to be mobilization of new, undecided, and independent voters in up-for-grabs states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, while expanding the Electoral College delegates in places like New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and possibly Virginia.
There are many outside the Obama movement who assert that the candidate is "not progressive enough," that Obama will be co-opted as a new face for American interventionism, that in any event real change cannot be achieved from the top down. These criticisms are correct. But in the end, they miss the larger point.
Most of us want President Obama to withdraw troops from Iraq more rapidly than the 16 months promised by his campaign. But it is important that Obama's position is shared by Iraq's prime minister and the vast majority of both our peoples. The Iraqi regime, pressured by its own people, has rejected the White House and McCain's refusal to adopt a timetable.
The real problem with Obama's position on Iraq is his adherence to the outmoded Baker-Hamilton proposal to leave thousands of American troops behind for training, advising and ill-defined "counterterrorism" operations. Obama should be pressured to reconsider this recipe for a low visibility counterinsurgency quagmire.
On Iran, Obama has usefully emphasized diplomacy as the only path to manage the bilateral crisis and assure the possibility of orderly withdrawal from Iraq. He should be pressed to resist any escalation.
On Afghanistan, Obama has proposed transferring 10,000 American combat troops from Iraq, which means out of the frying pan, into the fire. On Pakistan, and the possibility of a ground invasion by Afghan and US troops, this could be Obama's Bay of Pigs, a debacle.
On Israel-Palestine, he will pursue diplomacy more aggressively, but little more. Altogether, the counterinsurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are likely to become a spreading global quagmire and a human-rights nightmare, nullifying the funding prospects for health care reform or other domestic initiatives.
In Latin America, Obama has been out of step and out of touch with the winds of democratic change sweeping the continent. His commitment to fulfilling the United Nations anti-poverty goals, or to eradicating sweatshops through a global living wage, is underwhelming and given his anti-terrorism wars will be underfinanced.
And so on. The man will disappoint as well as inspire.
Once again, then, why support him by knocking on doors, sending money, monitoring polling places, and getting our hopes up? There are three reasons that stand out in my mind. First, American progressives, radicals, and populists need to be part of the vast Obama coalition, not perceived as negative do-nothings in the minds of the young people and African Americans at the center of the organized campaign.
It is not a "lesser evil" for anyone of my generation's background to send an African American Democrat to the White House. Pressure from Obama supporters is more effective than pressure from critics who don't care much if he wins and won't lift a finger to help him. Second, his court appointments will keep us from a right-wing lock on social, economic, and civil liberties issues during our lifetime. Third, it should be no problem to vote for Obama and picket his White House when justified.
Obama himself says he has solid progressive roots but that he intends to campaign and govern from the center. It is a challenge to rise up, organize, and reshape the center, and build a climate of public opinion so intense that it becomes necessary to redeploy from military quagmires, take on the unregulated corporations and uncontrolled global warming, and devote resources to domestic priorities like health care, the green economy, and inner-city jobs for youth.
What is missing in the current equation is not a capable and enlightened centrist but a progressive social movement on a scale like those of the past.
The refrain is familiar. Without the militant abolitionists, including the Underground Railroad and John Brown, there would have been no pressure on President Lincoln to end slavery. Without the radicals of the 1930s, there would have been no pressure on President Franklin Roosevelt, and therefore no New Deal, no Wagner Act, no Social Security.
The creative tension between large social movements and enlightened Machiavellian leaders is the historical model that has produced the most important reforms in the course of American history.
Mainstream political leaders will not move to the left of their own base. There are no shortcuts to radical change without a powerful and effective constituency organized from the bottom up. The next chapter in Obama's new American story remains to be written, perhaps by the most visionary of his own supporters.
Progressives need to unite for Obama, but also unite organically at least, and not in a top-down way on issues like peace, the environment, the economy, media reform, campaign finance, and equality like never before. The growing conflict today is between democracy and empire, and the battle fronts are many and often confusing. Even the Bush years have failed to unite American progressives as effectively as occurred during Vietnam. There is no reason to expect a President McCain to unify anything more than our manic depression.
But there is the improbable hope that the movement set ablaze by the Obama campaign will be enough to elect Obama and a more progressive Congress in November, creating an explosion of rising expectations for social movements here and around the world that President Obama will be compelled to meet in 2009.
That is a moment to live and fight for.
Tom Hayden is a longtime political activist and former California legislator. This article was commissioned by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, of which the Guardian is a member, and is being carried in newspapers across the country this week.