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Why Progressive Activists Are Giving Obama a Pass

There are a lot of reasons why the progressive groups that would be leading campaigns on a variety of fronts against George Bush stay silent when Obama does the same thing.  Randy Shaw has a thoughtful analysis that deserves attention:

Why have activists not publicly challenged Obama’s largely following the moderate Clinton-Gore course, and his failure to ignite the grassroots with a sense of ongoing social transformation that Democrats felt in 1965 or Republicans in 1981? There are four key reasons, none of whose legitimacy alters this fact: activists’ continued refusal to publicly hold the President accountable dooms prospects for progressive change.

The four reasons that Shaw lists are:

  1. Obama is an extraordinary improvement over Bush.
  2. Obama’s non-progressive actions are perceived as reflecting his true views.  “He truly believe escalating war in Afghanistan is in our nation’s best interest,” says Shaw.
  3. The investment so many made in the campaign and in Obama himself.  “After working day and night for months to elect Obama, it is not easy to accept that he is not the President you thought he would be,” he says.
  4. Low expectations for Obama’s ability to bring major change.

I’ll add another reason:  liberal “validators” were corralled early and easily by the White House early on, and were silent when Obama started breaking his progressive campaign promises.

The moment that became clear to me was during the AIG bonus fight.   The banks went to the White House and said they wanted the rhetoric ratcheted down, and the White House made the liberal groups comply. I remember being out there in the rain in front of the White House with David Swanson and Bill Greider and 10 Code Pink people the day before the first teabag rally, and thinking “this is a disaster.”  All of the populist rage that should have been channeled by the unions and the progressive interest groups was lost to the right at that moment.  And the groups stayed silent at the behest of the White House.


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It’s going to kill us in 2010.

The White House stitched up the unions quickly and easily by delaying the passage of EFCA.  I remember saying at the innauguration that if I was Rahm, I’d never pass EFCA because as long as I didn’t, the unions (which are by far the best funded institutions on the left) wouldn’t be able to move against me.  And sure enough, we’re seeing the results right now.  SEIU has pushed triggers repeatedly, and the AFL-CIO is on the verge of ditching the public option in exchange for a raise on cap of the excise tax to $25,000.  As Jon Walker notes, it’s a completely meaningless concession, but it’s just a fig leaf.  The unions are being lied to told that they will get a vote on EFCA after health care passes if they ditch the public option.  Since passing EFCA is a matter of survival to many of the private sector unions, they feel they have little choice but to comply.

Shaw concludes, “FDR knew that his progressive base would publicly protest anything short of radical reform; to date, Obama has no such fears.”    We’re going to have to start assessing where our loyalties lie — to the issues we say we believe in, or to the personalities we’ve attached ourselves to in the process of achieving them.  The left has been largely comfortable in its belief that supporting one was the same as supporting the other.  The future of a viable progressive movement is going to mean assessing where those two roads diverge.

Obama is now floating trial balloons about going after Social Security benefits in a midterm election year.  Kent Conrad is on the floor of the Senate pushing for his “commission” right now (something the White House tried to push earlier this year, but had to back burner).  If it succeeds in slashing Social Security benefits, Obama will set himself up nicely for 2012, but the cost to Democrats in 2010 could be cataclysmic.

Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher is the founder of Her work has also appeared on The Daily Beat, Common Dreams, AlterNet, The Nation and The American Prospect.

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