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'Obama' for Lefties

Ira Chernus

When I was a boy I traveled to the Deep South. On my very first day there I saw two water fountains side by side, one labeled "Colored" and the other "Whites Only."  Now, less than half a century later, a black family is on its way to the White House.

No doubt the myth of white superiority is still alive and well in many places. But today that myth, the historical foundation of American society, has a crack as big as the crack in the Liberty Bell.  The only word to express the magnitude of the change we lived through last week is "revolution."

Let's be honest, though. For those of us who still use that word "revolution" to describe the economic and political as well as social changes we'd like to see in the world, and the changes in domestic and foreign policy we'd like to see in our government, Barack Obama seems to be far from the president we want. He appears to be a pragmatist. He will probably govern from slightly left of center, much like Bill Clinton and John Kennedy. That's certainly the impression he is giving in his first days as president-elect.

"Appears" and "probably" are the key words here. No one knows for sure what Obama has in mind for this nation. "We will get there," he promised in his victory speech. But, in his typically soaring yet vague rhetoric, he never told us exactly where he intends to steer us.  That's understandable. He doesn't want to be tied to any policy agenda before he even takes office, especially with the economy on such an unpredictable rollercoaster.  Very possibly, he does not know yet himself where he is headed.

It's not like the good old days of Bush and Cheney, when we knew pretty much exactly what we were up against. Now we are all sailing on uncharted political seas.

All this uncertainty should make progressives feel optimistic. What can give us hope is not the new president as a policymaker, but the new president as a symbol of possibility. Barack Obama is the name of a person. "Obama" is also the name of a new mood -- a new tone and sensibility -- that has somehow risen up in every section of this country. It's a sense of open-ended possibility that hasn't been felt since the time of JFK, when those two water fountains I saw in the south were already doomed to become dusty relics of the past. Now, as then, the new mood is most evident among young people, who are energized as they haven't been since the '60s to enter the political scene and work for change.

"Obama" as a symbol is the name for a wind of change that could be powerful enough to sweep the ship of state great distances in a relatively short time -- though in what direction, no one can yet say.

Where we end up depends on which political forces mobilize and organize most quickly and most effectively. We could end up almost anywhere -- even right back where we started, if we are not careful. But if we on the left are careful, if we think strategically, we can catch the new wind and steer the nation a bit to the left.

While resisting Obama's unacceptable compromises, we should accept the wisdom of his strategic pragmatism. He himself can teach us the best way to oppose his policies.

As a community organizer, he learned that politics means making coalitions. Lefties who opposed Obama have to work together with lefties who supported him. And all of us have to work where we can with liberals and even centrists. How can we hope to push them leftward if we refuse to deal with them?

That means we can no longer just yell "no, no, no" at the government and expect anyone but ourselves to listen. It worked for the last few years because George W. Bush was so unpopular.  But now we are dealing with a president who is as widely admired as Bush was despised. Whether we like it or not, that's a fact a smart political movement can't afford to ignore.  So we have to appear -- and really be -- cooperative and constructive, not obstructive.

We also have to appear unthreatening. That's why Obama is so widely admired. He won, not by offering specific new policy ideas, but by uniting in himself the seemingly opposite images of change and steady predictability. He presented himself as the dynamic leader who could "change the world" while remaining always safe and solid, poised and unflappable, never likely to do anything rash or impulsive.  The defining moment of the contest was the second debate, when the "maverick" McCain wandered erratically around the stage while Obama sat or stood, serenely centered, even as the economy of the nation (and perhaps the whole world) was collapsing around us.

It's understandable that images of steadiness now dominate. Obama knows that you can't use the winds of change to move people who are frightened or insecure. Whatever he may hope to accomplish, he has to keep on reassuring the general public and the power elite that he really is the temperate, self-controlled man they saw throughout the campaign.  That's the only way he can be free to put across any policy agenda he comes up with.

He won't succeed if he says or does anything that might look unexpected, impulsive, or the least bit radical.

In a recent interview, the president-elect showed that he understands this truth. He complained that his infamous remark about "bitter" people who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them" was totally misinterpreted.  He was trying to say how important it is to accept people as they are, with all their fears, and recognize their longing for "a sense of continuity and stability that is unavailable in [their] economic life. . Because Democrats haven't met them halfway on cultural issues, we've not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition."

That's even more true for progressives both within and to the left of the Democratic party.  We know that most people in this country will never be economically secure unless there is radical change in the economic system. But if we set out to defeat, or even ignore, the people made insecure and bitter by the current system, we'll never get them to accept the need for radical change. We'll only create more fear, bitterness, and resentment. Rather than nudging the center toward the left we'll help to drive it toward the right.

We don't have to appear as cautious and timid as Obama. We couldn't, even if we wanted to. But we can learn how to talk to people who don't share our values, how to take their needs and concerns into account, even how to work together with them, without sacrificing our principles. If we do that, we can use the new mood of change as a window of opportunity to persuade the whole nation to continue moving leftward.

That possibility is what the name "Obama" symbolizes. But the new president certainly won't do it for us. We have to do it ourselves.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.

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