The sense of possibility

May 5, 2009

Millions of people looked forward to Barack Obama's presidency with a sense of pride and hope. But Obama's first 100 days have raised critical questions about the limits of what we can expect from a Democrat in the White House--and what it will take to get the change we want.

What do you think of Obama's 100 days? And what does the left need to do now to move the struggle forward? We asked a group of writers and activists for their answers to these questions. This commentary is from Brian Jones, a teacher, actor and activist in New York City, and contributor to the International Socialist Review.

TO BE honest, I'm still processing the fact that we have a Black president. I don't think I'm the only one, either.

The euphoria of election night is gone, though, replaced by sharp economic pain. So we have a Black president, but the collapse of the housing market has meant the collapse of Black wealth. Obama landed the job, but a lot of Black people are losing theirs--Black unemployment is still far above the national rate.

But a sense of possibility remains. Things that seemed like they'd never happen are happening. We won gay marriage in Iowa, after losing it in California. Workers occupied a factory in Chicago and made common cause with the LGBT movement there. Israel's assault on Gaza led to the largest antiwar protests in years. The dust hasn't settled on this new political era, and there's a feeling that we have room to fight for our demands.

I think two things are going on at once. The economic crisis is pushing people to radical conclusions--capitalism is becoming the enemy, and there's a new openness to talking about socialism.

At the same time, people continue to believe in Obama as a person, and are confused by some of his recent moves, or are trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. A woman recently asked me, "How is it possible that Obama is following what all these people from Goldman Sachs tell him to do?"

No one would be confused if Bush did these things, but Obama is supposed to be one of us; he's the guy who grew up like a regular person, he gets it. Consequently, folks are quicker to see AIG executives or the Goldman alums as the source of the problem than they are to include Obama in that category.

And now the lunatic right is trying to revive itself (thanks to the Fox News) with populist (not to mention, racist) anti-Obama hysteria. I think it's perfectly understandable for people to develop a knee-jerk Obama-defense reflex in response.

Meanwhile, there are some on the left who think that our primary task is to "break people from Obama." But in this context, I don't think that's the right approach. People are not Obama-dupes. When you're going to lose your job or your home, you're less likely to wait around for Obama to do something, and more likely to start thinking about what you should do.

After Obama’s 100 days

What do you think of Obama's first 100 days? And what does the left need to do now to move the struggle forward?

We asked a group of writers and activists for their answers to these questions, and published their contributions to a roundtable discussion on "After Obama’s 100 Days: Where Do We Go from Here?"

Sharon Smith
The real battles lie ahead

Dave Zirin
Bursting Washington's bubble

Mike Davis
Plutocrats 1, Workers 0

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Race and racism under Obama

Bill Fletcher Jr.
New openings to push Obama

Lance Selfa
Change that's still to come

Rose Aguilar
How much has really changed?

Haidar Eid
The complicit silence continues

Lee Sustar
Blank check for the bankers

Brian Jones
The sense of possibility

I've met plenty of people in the last month who voted for Obama, but are now reading Karl Marx. We're going through a sorting process, trying to figure out how to stop the war, how to figure out how to save our jobs and how to get out of this economic mess.

That's where the left comes in. We should always have next steps prepared--be ready to invite everyone to get involved right away.

At the same time, we have to give honest answers to big questions: Why is Obama supporting the people who want to privatize education? Why isn't Obama fighting for single-payer health care? Why is Obama dropping bombs on people in Pakistan? We have to patiently explain that regardless of what Obama is like as a human being, he is now in the position of being the leader of the American ruling class, and he must answer to them.

We need to build a new left that's independent of the Democratic Party on principle, but knows how to relate to people who are in various stages of figuring out what they think about the Democrats.

Here's a suggestion: let's dust off some of Obama's old slogans from the campaign trail, like "Change doesn't from Washington, it comes to Washington." Let's put that on a placard with the words: "YES WE CAN Stop the War!"

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