Today, with our spirit beaten down by two long wars, an economic collapse, and a seemingly paralyzed political process; we wait for the President’s speech on Afghanistan. We’ve become restless and fearful now, still waiting, but less hopeful for the big changes we thought would be coming after we threw off the chains of our former right wing leaders. Many of us are out of work; many are underwater in our homes.
Despite the trepidation we feel about the future, there are reasons to hope that yes, we can, in fact, make a better America and a better world for our children. The first one is remembering that we did elect someone because he inspired hope. Whether or not he lives up to our high expectations, Barack Obama is in the White House because he embraced hope and change. His campaign succeeded largely on the premise that this democratic experiment in the United States still had the potential to be reinvigorated by our participation in it. Across racial, age and economic boundaries, Americans responded to that premise, with the belief that yes, we could make a more progressive and vital America.
It was a huge step for Americans to raise our expectations as high as we did in 2008. The once-strong belief that the people could mold our political structure had begun to disappear from the national psyche some time ago. Perhaps it started with the assassinations of the 1960’s and the subsequent re-emergence of Richard Nixon and his manipulations, maybe that feeling accelerated with the election of Ronald Reagan’s cadre of right-wingers in 1980, possibly it completed with the elevation of the markets to become the temple of our whole economy during the 1990’s, but certainly hope was a scarce commodity by the time we got through years of war and trauma under George W. Bush.
So, by 2007, Barack Obama, a former community organizer turned politician, seemed a less than likely candidate to most. His heritage as a biracial African American in a country known for 400 years of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and finally a few decades of struggle to overcome this burden, seemed an impossible obstacle to all the pundits.
But it was the broader community of voters, organized through the internet during Obama’s campaign, that changed those dynamics. His campaign put ordinary people in charge of generating grassroots connections between each other, spreading the word and getting out the vote; a huge turnout resulted in communities that hadn’t traditionally voted heavily and swept him into office last fall.
The election was a catharsis. So Americans hoped that yes, we had done it. We had changed America. But at the same time, we’d simultaneously been hit with a crushing economic blow as the banking system melted down; many of us now needed to tend to our own gardens. We lost jobs; many lost homes. We feared for our retirements and futures. We were all paying the price for decades of untrammeled market chicanery employed without restraint or significant oversight. The temple of Wall Street had turned into a tomb for the economy.
But perhaps Obama could make it better, what with his optimism and forthrightness. We hoped it was possible, but the former community organizer no longer lived in the network of his campaign, connected to the people. Now President Obama had to move out of the grassroots patchwork of those connections— the bloggers and house gatherings and rallies generated during the long road to office. As President, Obama took Serious Counsel. The President needed to listen to the gray men of Wall Street tell him how to avert economic Armageddon.
So, tell him they did. They needed our money. And they didn’t want much restraint, since that would be, well, socialism, and that would be destructive of the creativity of private capital. Never mind that this was the same creativity that over decades had shut down our industrial base, shipped our blue collar jobs overseas, moved wealth steadily upwards to the top one percent of our population, and then blamed those who couldn’t adapt. They needed more capital, and quickly. Bush and Paulson had already pumped hundreds of billions at the banks without many strings; Obama should keep the floodgates open, they said.
We became somewhat more troubled when, in the belief that unity was possible across the political aisle, Obama watered down his stimulus plan to spin almost half of it off to tax cuts. The compromise didn’t buy Republican votes, but the cuts siphoned off almost half a trillion dollars that might have gone towards job creation and left it in individuals’ hands, just as our individual impulse to hoard cash was at its height. With months of rising unemployment, our hopes continued to lessen. We'd come back from the brink, but maybe the compromises hadn’t been worth all those lost jobs and homes.
We watched in consternation over the summer months, as the right wing beat the drum against health care reform and government spending, emboldened by the nation’s troubles, enraged by their loss of sway, and organized from above by Murdock’s television channel, conservative talk-radio hosts, and groups of insurance-financed lobbyists. They were joined by hate groups, nativists, and panic-stricken citizens, and began to disrupt the body politic with ‘tea parties’ and organized town hall scream fests, augmented by the odd armed visitor at Presidential appearances.
Still, we hoped that perhaps we might return to reason as the Congress began to address health care, coaxing a bill through committees and resisting lobbyists’ entreaties to fatally water down the legislation with goodies for the insurance companies. It looked just possible that progressives might hold off the corporate powers-that-be for long enough to pass something truly significant.
So now we stand, a year after the some of the greatest sea changes in American life to wash over us in decades. We have a stagnating economic situation, a momentous decision to be announced from the White House to perhaps escalate the war in Afghanistan, healthcare reform beginning a minuet of amendments in the Senate, and polling numbers showing rising strength on the right. What’s still possible?
Well, much is possible if we reactivate the network that brought Obama into office. If Americans of good will are still ready to connect with one another, if we are still larger in numbers than the demagogues of talk-radio, then there is still much left to our democracy. We are still the sum of our people’s hopes, not just the product of our individual needs and fears.
Unions and progressive groups will come together later this week at the White House to insist on job creation; they should still have the capacity to stay connected to grassroots citizens’ groups and to carry our message to Obama. There are millions of Americans who still use social and political networks on the internet. We have the wherewithal to pressure the Administration we elected last year to save jobs, enact real healthcare reform, take back Main Street from Wall Street, and create a policy to successfully disengage from a random “War on Terror,” focusing instead on whacking the terrorists who attacked us eight years ago.
But to succeed, it’s going to take some pressure from the people who thought their work was done when we elected a new President. It’s going to require that we make him respond to us, not to the powerful pressures inside the system: the corporations and the well-connected handlers who have the usual advantage inside Washington. Congresspeople and Senators will run towards the positions that allow them a chance to survive another election. Right now, those positions are unclear to most legislators in the middle; so matching the wild rage of the right with focused pressure from progressive Americans is the only way to force their hands toward reform.
The White House is in need of our demands that it follow through. If we let Obama compromise away his values without showing conviction, it will be our fault too. We can blame him— and stand back as the right wingers dominate the airwaves while Obama attempts in vain to straddle the middle— or we can remember that democracy is worth fighting for, even when that fight requires more stamina and more struggle than we bargained for.
There is too much passivity among progressives now; we need more backbone. Perhaps Obama’s recent vacillation will provide us a necessary push to action. Franklin Roosevelt had the same pressures placed on him to compromise on principle, but he knew he had the people behind him. When speaking to one group proposing a tough progressive stance, he asked them for the backing he needed to stay with them, saying, "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."
Through our own connections and commitment, we can make Obama do it too. We need to let the President know that we sent him to Washington to take it back from corporate interests and war profiteers, not to find a path towards the least resistance. The right may hate him mightily, but that will only make him stronger, if the rest of the country is behind him. As Roosevelt put it, describing the forces of organized money that bitterly opposed him in 1936, “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me…and I welcome their hatred."
It’s natural to kick back a bit when one is getting his way. But by now it should be clear that the danger is real that we’ll end up losing the best and perhaps last chance we have in this country to turn our society around towards justice and peace if we sit around waiting for bad things to happen. There’s too much at stake for the right for them to simply let change occur; so it’s time the rest of us realized that we have too much at stake not to demand it of our leadership.