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Incumbent Lessons: What Obama’s Presidency Can Teach Sanders’ Revolution

Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters during a campaign rally Tuesday evening February 16, 2016 at Morehouse College. (Photo: Ben Gray/WSBTV)

Bernie Sander’s call for political revolution is taking much of the country by storm. Once a fringe candidate, he has surged in the polls to legitimately challenging frontrunner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination with a resounding win in New Hampshire. More than just taking on Republicans or Centrist Democrats, Sanders is trying to build a popular movement to transform the US political and economic system.

This campaign is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s insurgent challenge to the establishment pick of Hillary Clinton in 2008. Despite proclaiming the “audacity of hope,” he has governed as President more from the political center. Not surprisingly, Clinton has sought to build a “firewall” against Sanders by embracing the President. However, an important part of his historical legacy may be in how his failures helped to fuel and guide “Sander’s revolution.”

"Despite proclaiming the 'audacity of hope,' [Obama] has governed as President more from the political center."

While not officially endorsing a candidate, Obama’s recent remarks are revealing and seem to support his former rival Clinton, calling her “extraordinarily experienced,” “wicked smart” and someone who “knows every policy inside and out.” This reflects a more general narrative surrounding this race – that of the pragmatic lawmaker verses the idealistic revolutionary, the “progressive who likes to get things done” against the unrealistic iconoclast, the head against the heart.

And it also speaks to a supposed fundamental difference over the best way to govern and how to achieve progress. For President Obama, the inside game of mastering legislative strategy and deal making seems to be more important than the inspiring poetry of candidate Obama. In this respect, the hardhearted realism of Clinton is more appealing – if not as flashy – then the romanticism of Sanders.

There are of course serious questions of whether this analysis is fair. Sanders is a capable lawmaker with a long history of bipartisan legislative achievements. And historically, genuine social change such as the New Deal required massive popular mobilization and visionary leadership not just beltway maneuvering. 

There's something in the air...

However, these debates miss what is really at stake in this election. It is not a choice between pragmatism or revolution. Instead, it is a question of how to make revolutions pragmatic and effective. How can Sander’s appeal to taking on a “rigged economy” and political system be translated into far reaching legislative success?

It is here that the experience of Obama the President has much to teach Sanders the candidate.  Tellingly, Obama understands – even while praising the virtues of realism – what makes for a transformational rather than merely accomplished Commander in Chief. He has repeatedly pointed to the success of Reagan in fundamentally altering the country’s values. In his own words “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.”

While recognizing Sander’s attempts to achieve the same, he seems wary of its realistic possibilities. Indeed much of his own implicit support from Hillary may be borne out of the political scars he received from hard fought battles over health care, budgets and foreign policy. Yet his failures to do so can be a teaching moment for Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement he represents.

Firstly, it is necessary to espouse more than simply hope. Also needed is a strong vision that clearly diagnoses what is wrong and how it can be fixed. Obama’s appeal rested largely on the historic achievement of his personal election rather than a persuasive narrative of the need for a new ideology. It demands, using a classic example, a “hedgehog” who can singularly focus on big idea than a fox “who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory…related to no moral or aesthetic principle.”

Just as importantly, do not distance yourself from the grassroots support that elected you. As Obama observed, “One thing I learned through some tough election cycles: You can’t separate good policy from the need to bring the American people along and make sure that they know why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

"This election finds the US at a crossroads. The country is less democracy than oligarchy."

Similarly, to effectively challenge and prevail over elite interests requires a large portion of the population to continue fighting for these goals long after the election has been won. FDR was able to push through the New Deal with the backing of unions and everyday Americans. In more recent times, the Tea Party has used popular pressure to completely redefine the Republican establishment.

Moreover, do not make pragmatism and moderation defining political virtues. They are tools and must be counter-balanced by ethics of principled consistency and the political courage to struggle for more than half measures. Quoting Robert Reich “Political ‘pragmatism’ may require accepting ‘half loaves’ – but the full loaf has to be large and bold enough in the first place to make the half loaf meaningful.”

This election finds the US at a crossroads. The country is less democracy than oligarchy. It is being torn about by economic inequality, racial injustice and fears over domestic and foreign threats. The rising anti-establishment politics is responding to shared popular feelings of powerlessness in the face of corporate power and the politicians they seemingly control. Moreover, Clinton’s brand of realism and Centrism has contributed to millions uninsured, even more economically insecure and a world where corporate interests and the threat of terrorism are prioritized over shared development and genuine democracy.

Despite breaking down historic barriers in becoming the first black American ever elected to the nation’s highest office, Barack Obama has not fundamentally changed this dangerous balance of power in favor of the rich. And while touting her experience, there is little in Hillary Clinton’s record that suggests she would either. Sanders appears to have the vision, the commitment to a bottom up politics and a willingness to fight for genuine progressive change to be successful.

Yet there is still much that can be learned from President Obama. While Hillary embraces his time in office as a prime example of how to govern progressively, actual progressives can take from his failures the seeds for their own future successes.

History teaches that pragmatism without vision is rarely successful. Nor is revolution without realism. Bernie Sanders has shown over his career that he can be an effective progressive and inspiring campaigner. It is now time to see if he can build a pragmatic revolution.

Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom

Dr. Peter Bloom is a lecturer in the Department of People and Organizations at the Open University. He has published widely on issues of 21st-century democracy, politics, and economics in both scholarly journals and in publications including the Washington Post, The New Statesman, Roar, Open Democracy, The Conversation, and Common Dreams. His books include Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalization and Beyond Power and Resistance: Politics at the Radical Limits released in November 2016.

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