Chasing the Obama mirage

Progressives who see a kindred spirit in Barack Obama are fooling themselves.

SINCE CORRALLING the Democratic presidential nomination in May, Sen. Barack Obama has spent the last few months moving to the "center" on a number of issues that motivated his supporters during the primaries.

Columnist: Lance Selfa

Lance Selfa Lance Selfa is the author of The Democrats: A Critical History, a socialist analysis of the Democratic Party, and editor of The Struggle for Palestine, a collection of essays by leading solidarity activists. He is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review.

His somersault from opposing to supporting the rotten Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) bill that pardons major telecommunications companies for their collaboration with the Bush administration's illegal spying program occasioned protests from liberals.

Thousands of Obama supporters filled his campaign's interactive Web site with protests of his sell-out on the FISA bill, and other prominent supporters expressed unease in editorials in various liberal publications.

One group of prominent Obama supporters issued "An Open Letter to Barack Obama" in the pages of the liberal Nation magazine. After congratulating Obama for his campaign's "tremendous achievements" that have "inspired a wave of political enthusiasm like nothing seen in this country for decades," the letter went on to raise concern: "[T]here have been troubling signs that you are moving away from the core commitments shared by many who have supported your campaign, toward a more cautious and centrist stance."

Barack Obama (Brett Flashnick)Barack Obama (Brett Flashnick)

The open letter goes on to enunciate a list of policies--including withdrawal from Iraq on a fixed timetable and universal health care--that the signatories consider a minimum program for Obama to pursue. It concludes, in part: "If you win in November, we will work to support your stands when we agree with you and to challenge them when we don't. We look forward to an ongoing and constructive dialogue with you when you are elected president."

In the light of such indications of unease among his liberal supporters, Obama felt compelled to note the displeasure among "my friends on the left"--only to slap them down again.

"Look, let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center," Obama told a crowd in Powder Springs, Ga., on July 9. "The people who say this apparently haven't been listening to me. I believe in a whole lot of things that make me progressive and put me squarely in the Democratic camp...I believe in personal responsibility; I also believe in faith...That's not something new; I've been talking about that for years. So the notion that this is me trying to look centrist is not true."

While most people would probably look at Obama's statements as a back-of-the-hand swat at his critics, prominent liberal blogger Chris Bowers of OpenLeft.com read the opposite into them: " [T]he speech is actually directed at what Obama calls 'my friends on the left.' I can't remember a presidential nominee specifically courting left-wing voters and activists before. Honestly, I really can't. This is a sign of increased respect and being taken more seriously."

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DESPITE THE signs of discomfort with Obama in the liberal camp, Bowers' response is actually much more indicative of the lengths to which many leading progressives are willing to go to consider Obama--already a member of one of the world's most exclusive clubs, the Senate, and with campaign coffers stuffed with millions in corporate cash--as one of them.

Typical of this willful suspension of disbelief was the founding statement of Progressives for Obama, issued in March over the signatures of prominent figures like Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Barbara Ehrenreich and Danny Glover. Conceived as an intervention into the Democratic primaries on Obama's behalf in the wake of his March 2008 speech on race, it opens by proclaiming, "All American progressives should unite for Barack Obama."

The statement's key idea is that the support for Obama generated in the Democratic primaries--heavy voter turnouts and decisive backing from African Americans and young people--constitutes a social movement that stands in the traditions of the great American social movements of the past, like the labor movement of the 1930s or the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s.

As its authors write, "We intend to join and engage with our brothers and sisters in the vast rainbow of social movements to come together in support of Obama's unprecedented campaign and candidacy. Even though it is candidate-centered, there is no doubt that the campaign is a social movement, one greater than the candidate himself ever imagined."

The statement concedes that Obama "openly defines himself as a centrist." But this becomes the reason for the "formation of a progressive force within his coalition. Anything less could allow his eventual drift towards the right as the general election approaches. It was the industrial strikes and radical organizers in the 1930s who pushed Roosevelt to support the New Deal...And it will be the Obama movement that makes it necessary and possible to end the war in Iraq, renew our economy with a populist emphasis and confront the challenge of global warming."

There's no doubt that Obama's campaign--or at least its incarnation during the Democratic primaries--mobilized first-time voters and raised hopes for "change" among millions of people. But declaring Obama's campaign a social movement is an exercise in sophistry at best, and self-delusion at worst.

A discussion of social movements is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that the mobilization of millions in militant struggle in the union movement of the 1930s or in the civil rights movement of the 1950s/60s--against the forces of the state and employers--is a different phenomenon than voting in a bourgeois political primary. To confuse the two is to lose any realistic way to assess what is actually needed to win the type of social change the Progressives for Obama seek.

Any effort to tailor demands for progressive reforms to what is acceptable to an Obama administration's assessment of the politics of "the possible" risks settling for a lot less than could be won with an independent mobilization that forces all Washington politicians to address the movement's agenda.

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THAT IS the real lesson of the 1930s and 1960s: what will determine the direction of social and political change in the U.S. will be grassroots movements on the ground, not tallies at the ballot box. Progressives for Obama would most likely agree with that point, but in their actions so far, they have, as Glenn Ford of Black Agenda Report put it, lent their names and reputations to an effort "to allow Obama to 'pass' for what he is not: a progressive."

The arguments of Progressives for Obama also head off the possibility that those genuinely interested in voting for an end to the war in Iraq, a single payer health care plan or an end to government violations of civil liberties will find prominent advocates for their point of view.

The underfunded independent candidacies of Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney and independent candidate Ralph Nader are raising those demands. But with the likes of Progressives for Obama pledging to "seek Green support against the claim of some that there are no real differences between Obama and McCain," and with Black nationalist-turned-Stalinist Amiri Baraka comparing those who would vote for McKinney or Nader to the German left whose disunity allowed Hitler to triumph (!), it's clear that genuine left voices will be muffled in 2008.

With so many millions wanting to see the end of Republican rule, Obama, rather than McKinney or Nader, will capture the vast majority of votes from those seeking progressive change. But regardless of any "moves to the center," his candidacy has raised expectations among large numbers of people that Obama has no intention of meeting. An Obama presidency will prove that--and set the stage for grassroots movements to emerge in larger form.