Disenchantment is setting in… Among those who describe themselves as “progressives” (an umbrella-term re-invented to avoid the pejoration of “liberal” and to encompass liberals and the non-Marxist left), the infatuation with President-elect Obama has began to sour. As thousands prepared to join the inaugural celebrations in DC, the announcement that Reverend Rick Warren would invoke the ceremonies sparked a decided outcry from progressive Obama supporters. The right-centrist Cabinet appointments – earlier indications of Obama’s governing posture – were largely sloughed off by left supporters as Lincoln-esque maneuvers or practical accommodations. But honoring Warren stretched the credulity of even the most smitten. While Warren has shown a tad more tolerance and compassion than the worst of the evangelical right, he is still a member-in-good-standing of the cabal of fire and brimstone reactionaries.
Who is Obama?
Has Obama betrayed his progressive promise? Obama never made a progressive promise. The idea of Obama as a water-bearer for liberal or progressive reform came not from Obama’s mouth, but from the sheer wishes and dreams of the left. They took the vacuity of the “change” slogan as something more than the usual hyperbole of two-party politics despite the fact that it is hurled at every lame duck or incumbent. They saw rhetorical, fuzzy commitments to constituents of the Democratic Party base as more than they have been in every previous Democratic campaign. They took youth, energy, and elequence as a mark of liberalism in a way not seen since the JFK campaign. In short, Obama ran a predictable, well executed Democratic Party Presidential campaign and the left took it to be a people’s crusade.
The “democratic” component of the campaign – the internet engagement – was seen as a departure from business-as-usual even though it was used effectively by Howard Dean four years earlier and spawned no new, progressive movement. It is not yet clear how the post-election internet pollings will differ from the numerous Democratic Party postal fund-raising appeals that I receive, masquerading as polls. Republican strategists are now planning a similar “grass roots” strategy for coming elections. The mass mobilizations may well have surpassed previous ones, though, as in past campaigns, the organizers asked for no programmatic commitments or concessions. The efforts were gratefully received as “gifts” and not leverage.
Obama has effectively postured as his political career demanded. His social agency beginnings in Chicago coincided with the mayoral incumbency of an authentic progressive and reformer, Harold Washington. Yet there were no strong ties to either Washington’s program nor his legacy.
Obama took liberal positions while dependent in his political advancement upon the liberal Hyde Park constituency and, at the same time, courted moneyed interests in Chicago – interests that would boost his advancement even more. His subsequent career generally followed these lines, balancing policy positions with constituency and fund-sourcing. In this regard, Obama’s career parallels that of other centrist Democrats, no better or worse. But certainly nothing in Obama’s career would warrant counting him among the Democratic Party’s more progressive leaders, for example, Dennis Kucinich or John Conyers.
In fairness, Obama has betrayed no one. His vast centrist following and the Democratic Party Old Guard have shown no fear of Obama’s perceived “progressive” agenda, an agenda that appears to be more and more in the minds of a self-deluding left. Obama’s appointments and positions have produced no panic among big capital, which showered an unprecedented amount of financial support onto his campaign.
Fifty-six years ago, Walter Lippmann, an astute political observer, made similar observations about a Democratic Party nominee named “Franklin Roosevelt”. As cited in Frederick Lewis Allen’s Since Yesterday:
Walter Lippmann warned those Western Democrats who regarded Roosevelt as a courageous progressive and an “enemy of evil influences” that they did not know their man.
“Franklin D. Roosevelt” wrote Lippmann, “is an amiable man with many philanthropic impulses, but he is not the dangerous enemy of anything. He is too eager to please…. Franklin D. Roosevelt is no crusader. He is no tribune of the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege. He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President”.
Lippmann’s assessment of Roosevelt before his election loosely fits our President-elect. Of course Roosevelt went on to be celebrated as the father of the New Deal and the symbol of the US welfare-state, such as it was. But as every careful read of the Great Depression history shows, the New Deal reforms were the result of independent mass pressure enabling and forcing these changes (see The Real Lesson of the New Deal for the US Left).