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Can We Still Believe in That Change Obama Ran On?

Unfortunately, too many of our citizens have lost faith that our biggest institutions-our corporations, our media, and, yes, our government-still reflect these same values. Each of these institutions are full of honorable men and women doing important work that helps our country prosper. But each time a CEO rewards himself for failure, or a banker puts the rest of us at risk for his own selfish gain, people's doubts grow. Each time lobbyists game the system or politicians tear each other down instead of lifting this country up, we lose faith. The more that TV pundits reduce serious debates to silly arguments, big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away.

No wonder there's so much cynicism out there. No wonder there's so much disappointment.

I campaigned on the promise of change-change we can believe in, the slogan went. And right now, I know there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change-or that I can deliver it.

But remember this-I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That's just how it is. (from Obama's State of the Union; Jan. 27th 2010)

President Obama's speech shows little understanding of the time we're in or of the daily experience of real Americans. Maybe it comes from being in D.C. for a solid year now.

  • In the last 18 months, Wall Street nearly brought the world economy to its knees, paid itself huge bonuses, and, with the boldness of a gambler backed up by the U.S. Treasury, is out doing more of the same.
  • The American people, meanwhile, are suffering from joblessness, housing foreclosures, unaffordable and complicated health insurance bureaucracy, and an economy that continues to stumble, with no real reason to believe it will recover.
  • The window of time we have to confront our climate crisis is closing, and the impacts on our economy, security, biodiversity, agriculture, access to water, and the habitability of our coastlines is just starting to be felt. Desperately needed action is being stalled by special interests.
  • The war in the Middle East threatens to expand, the casualties continue to grow, and the military budget keeps ballooning, while no one in the administration can say what we can reasonably expect to accomplish there.

To deal with these and other crises, Obama will have to overcome the influence of powerful special interests, who work overtime to block any progress that could threaten their quarterly profits. He can only overcome those powerful interests when he partners with the American people.


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Early on, I was encouraged that a president who came up as a community organizer would know how to do that. Even before Inauguration day, he was holding health care house meetings across the country to create a foundation for action. And when the workers at Republic Window and Door, who were laid off without the pay they were owed, occupied their factory, Obama reached out a hand of support.

But the insider disease seems to have taken over. Obama's health care proposal was already a compromise-keep private insurance companies, but offer the public a strong public option. From that starting point, it was compromised again and again until it is now more give-away to health insurance companies and PhRMA than benefit to Americans. The mass movements pressing for single-payer health care (which at the time enjoyed majority support) weren't invited into the process to balance the special interests and ideological opponents of a strong public option. Instead, they were excluded from White House summits and systematically ignored.

When Wall Street greed threatened to crash the economy, Obama's inner circle wrote blank checks to some of the worst offenders, establishing a precedent that the most risky global gambling is backed by the American taxpayer. (Obama's recent announcement that he is dealing with the "too big to fail" issue is promising, but the details will be what counts. And precious time and momentum have been lost).

So yes, Americans are furious. The Massachusetts vote disproved what Democratic Party insiders have said-you can take the progressives for granted. After all, where can they go? To the Republicans? To the Greens? Here's the answer. If they are excluded from the process, progressive voters, and the progressive activists who built the grassroots Obama campaign, have shown they can stay home on election day.

President Obama, it is not too late to make common cause with the American people. Instead of feeding them a list of policy tweaks-a tax credit here, and new commission there-go back to the vision of "change we can believe in." Admit the mistake of trying to placate Wall Street and recalcitrant Republicans. Show you can fight for the American people, and the American people will stand with you.

You'll have to start by taking on the corporate special interests that crippled our economy, undercut the promise of health care reform, and stalled desperately needed action on climate change. Partner with the young people, the working people, state and local government, small business, the grassroots leaders who believed in change. Work with those who don't mind telling the truth about the effectiveness of single-payer health care, even if you don't agree with them. Get rid of your Wall Street economic advisers, and bring in a team that is rooted in the real, Main Street economy. Tell the story of what is happening to our country, with the clarity and unity of purpose that you are so good at. It's not too late to bring us together, not by scolding partisanship, but by helping us see our common purpose and how we can take courageous action, together, to make change more than a belief-to make it a reality.

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is founder and director of, co-founder of YES! Magazine, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000 Mile Journey Through a New America. Follow her blog and connect with Sarah on Twitter: @sarahvangelder

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