Obama Is No FDR, Much Less Gandhi

On the eve of the G-20 summit last week, President Barack Obama gave a long interview to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in which he said that even during his days as a community organizer in Chicago he was never a big fan of mass protests.

With the clear intention of discouraging those who might join the
looming demonstrations against the G-20, Obama explained that he was
always a believer that "focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues
that have an impact on people's lives is what really makes a
difference; and that having protests about abstractions [such] as
global capitalism or something, generally is not really going to make
much of a difference."

While I personally never jumped on the Obama bandwagon, such a flippant dismissal of protest by the president is disappointing nevertheless, and slightly reminiscent of how his predecessor wrote off the millions who took to the streets before the invasion of Iraq.

Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman noted
in response: "Of course, Mr. Obama's answer would be news to those who
marched in countless civil rights, women's rights and anti-war
demonstrations over the decades. It would also be news to those who
filled stadiums to hear candidate Obama's stump speeches in 2008."

Not surprisingly, his remarks were also not well received by the protesters who had arrived in Pittsburgh.

"You have revealed the real Obama!" Clarence Thomas, a member of the
International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said during a rally
demanding new jobs programs, according to the Wall Street Journal. He said the president's statement was "very, very disrespectful" to the civil rights and other social movements.

For all of his flaws, Obama is clearly an intelligent person who must have known better.

It would not have taken an incredible investigative feat to discover
that the protesters descending upon Pittsburgh were doing so for very
"concrete" reasons that touch their daily lives in very real ways.

They came to advocate for greater assistance for everyday people
during these tough economic times, for more serious government action
on global warming
ahead of the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, and for an end
to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have already taken such a
staggering human and financial toll.

In fact, as a general rule of thumb, most people -- whether they are
diehard activists or not -- don't normally travel great distances to
face ominous riot police firing rubber bullets, pepper spray and deafening sound cannons, unless they have been deeply, personally affected by the issues being protested.

And given the global financial meltdown that has hit working people
so hard, can anyone really say that those who critique the entire
capitalist system don't have a point?

Rather than being a mere "abstraction," as Obama claimed, capitalism
is an economic system that functions on a set of rules that we created,
which inevitably leads to massive inequalities
between the haves and have-nots and the easily avoidable deaths of
millions around the world every year who simply cannot afford basic
medical care or food. It rewards greed and is based on a belief that
continual, limitless economic growth is not only possible, but

The planet's atmosphere and natural resources, however, are finite and being quickly exhausted by the developed world's gluttonous consumption.

In his new book, All My Bones Shake,
Robert Jensen succinctly sums up our predicament: "Capitalism is
fundamentally inhuman, antidemocratic and unsustainable. Capitalism has
given those of us in the First World lots of stuff (though much of it
of questionable value) in exchange for our souls, for our hope for
progressive politics, and for the possibility of a decent future for
children. Either we change or we die -- spiritually, politically,

Obama's dismissal of mass nonviolent action was disingenuous for
other reasons as well. Behind his desk in his Senate office, Obama
prominently displayed pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King

In an interview
last year, he explained that the portraits were there "to remind me
that real results will not just come from Washington, they will come
from the people." And only weeks before the G-20, during his
"controversial" address to school children, the president brought up
Gandhi, calling him "a real hero of mine."

Could anyone possibly argue with a straight face that King, who was
killed while planning the Poor People's Campaign, would not be on the
streets with those calling for economic justice? Would Gandhi not
oppose the diversion of $700 billion this year from meeting people's basic needs to fund the Pentagon and the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan?

The interview with Obama also revealed a growing chasm between his
approach to social movements and that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, to whom
he is widely compared.

After listening to the concerns of the legendary labor organizer and
civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph during a meeting, as the famous
and perhaps apocryphal story goes, FDR replied:
"I agree with everything that you've said, including my capacity to be
able to right many of these wrongs and to use my power and the bully
pulpit ... But I would ask one thing of you, Mr. Randolph, and that is
go out and make me do it."

During his presidential campaign, Obama even used this story. He
told his supporters that he was just one person who could not make the
changes they wanted to see by himself. Obama's final message was clear:
"Make me do it."

Now that Obama is in the White House, however, he is singing a
different tune. Rather than encouraging grassroots protest to help push
the public debate and further a progressive legislative agenda as
Roosevelt did, Obama is unfortunately publicly trying to quash pressure
from the left.

As a counter to the recent mobilization of right-wing tea-baggers,
it would seem that now is as good a time as ever for the president to
embrace the protesters who are championing at least some of the causes
that he once claimed to believe in.

Instead, Obama disgracefully sent in the militarized police -- with the National Guard on the ready -- to silence their dissent.

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