How much has really changed?

April 30, 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 Rose Aguilar, the host of Your Call radio show on KALW in the Bay Area 91.7 FM and author of Red Highways: A Liberal's Journey into the Heartland.

OVERALL, I would say Obama's 100 days have been disappointing.

On a positive note, when you look at what he did in the first couple weeks, he overturned the global gag rule, which is a major issue for women living in places like Africa and Latin America. Seventy thousand women die from botched abortions every year because of the global gag rule and because abortion is illegal in so many of these countries.

That was a very pro-choice move on Obama's part. The question is what it means in the U.S. Because women in Mississippi still have only one clinic. Even in California, it's not so easy to get access to abortion. And the Democrats recently changed their tune on abortion, saying that they want it to be safe, legal and rare.

Obama also signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which is a fair pay law named after former Goodyear employee Lilly Ledbetter of Alabama. That was a big deal--we would never see that under the present Republican Party.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare. Obama also ordered the EPA to review an earlier decision to block California and a number of other states from setting their own vehicle emission standards, which is a big win for people who care about the environment. The EPA barely existed under Bush.

But let's remember that these are policies a Republican would have backed 40 years ago. I think it's important to look back at history. When you look at Richard Nixon, his presidency spent more on social programs than defense. The EPA and the Clean Air Act were created during his presidency.

Because the conversation has shifted so far to the right, when Obama does these things, people praise him--and of course, they're good policies. But these are common sense policies. We should really expect nothing else.

Obama also said that he would close Guantánamo--and we're told now that it won't be that easy. But detainees imprisoned at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan still can't challenge their confinement.

On health care, remember all of the time spent on the minor differences between Obama's plan and Hillary Clinton's plan during the election campaign. But what's happened to this issue? Where is the plan? And what's happening with single payer? At the health care summit, it was off the table.

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

WHEN YOU look at the economy, even people who praised Obama are asking why the officials who are giving him advice have such close ties to Wall Street. Obama actually got more money from Wall Street than McCain, because Wall Street knew he was going to win. So you have Lawrence Summers, Tim Geithner, Robert Rubin--all with very close ties to Wall Street.

In fact, just recently, Martin Feldstein was named to head Obama's efforts to simplify the tax code. He's a former chair of Reagan's council of economic advisers, and according to the Wall Street Journal, he believes that tax cuts spur the economy. And this is right now, when a number of economists say the deficit is so high is because of the Bush tax cuts.

Here's another disappointment. Obama called for immediately repealing these cuts for the wealthy. Now he says he'll allow them to expire as scheduled in 2010. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in disagreement with Obama on this--she says he should repeal them now. So what does that tell you?

Then there's the military budget. Obama's proposal was sold as a big cut, but it's actually a 4 percent increase over the Bush administration's last budget.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Rose Aguila at Socialism 2009 in San Francisco, speaking on "Media as a Weapon: Speaking Truth to Power." Check out the Socialism 2009 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

And there's the question of whether the Democrats will stand up to the powerful weapons companies. I recently interviewed the superintendent of San Francisco schools, and he said that he needs $30 million to reform the system. That's one-tenth of the cost of an F-22 fighter jet, which is made by Lockheed Martin in 44 states.

The other question is whether Obama will fight back when fellow Democrats fight him on the proposal to cap production of the F-22. Because Lockheed Martin is smart--the F-22 fighter jet is made in 44 states, so you're going to get Democrats in these states saying we can't lose the F-22 because it creates jobs. Will Obama stand up to this?

And of course, there are the torture memos, which are on everyone's minds. Obama's getting credit for releasing the secret torture memos, but he's saying he won't prosecute CIA officials. So now the world knows that the U.S. waterboards, it locks people in boxes with insects, it slams people into walls. But there won't be any prosecutions.

I just interviewed Bruce Fein, one of the most outspoken conservatives calling for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney, and he said as far as we know, these sadistic methods could still be in place. How do we know they're not still happening?

He also says that Obama is setting a horrible precedent by not prosecuting. Future presidents can carry out the same methods knowing there will be no consequences--not to mention the message it sends to the rest of the world.

One thing I'm seeing, which I find fascinating, is some of the biggest Obama cheerleaders--a lot of people on MSNBC, for example--are now criticizing him for not taking action on the torture memos. A lot of people who said let's wait, it hasn't been a hundred days, he was given a huge mess, we need to find out what he's going to do--now they're asking what we're going to do about the fact that he's not going to take action on these torture memos.

So even some of the people who were being quiet for a long time are now realizing that it's going to be a long four years, and it's going to be a tough fight.

AS FOR what the left should do, I like to talk about media, because I work in media. And I think the alternative progressive media needs to spend more time talking to the people they claim to be fighting for--because people are really suffering right now, and we need to do a better job of giving them a voice.

I subscribe to The Nation, Mother Jones, Harper's, the New Yorker, and I go to all of these blogs every day, and I have to say that it's very rare to read a quote from a real person. I find that there are many more screeds.

I think people need to leave their computers more often and get out into the streets. If you're going to write a story about the fact that 48 million people don't have health care, get out into the streets and talk to the people who don't have health care. If you're going to write a story about the importance of the Employee Free Choice Act, go hang out with union members, or go to a Wal-Mart and interview people who work at Wal-Mart.

I say this because I took a six-month road trip a couple years ago, after I got tired of the left just talking to each other, and people preaching to the choir. I noticed that we rarely hear from the 98 million people who don't vote. We rarely hear from the working poor. We rarely hear from single moms who are struggling.

So I wanted to get out and talk to these people. And what I found is that people are hungry to get active and hungry for information, but they don't know how to get it.

I went to Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Montana and Utah. And I think that people who live in the more progressive cities need to do a better job of making connections in the places that we call "red states"--the places that tend to vote for Republicans.

I found a number of activists in these areas--a number of gay rights activists, for example, in these states where it's not easy to be an activist. And over and over, I heard them say, please tell your friends that you aren't the only ones working on these issues. They said, we're here, and it's not easy. It would be easier, especially for those of us who are gay, to move to San Francisco. But if we leave, our town turns to hell.

So I think we need to do a better job of reaching out to activists in these states--asking them what it's like, and what they need, and what we can do to support them and make connections with them. During the primaries, you see a lot of the Democrats go to these states, because they need their votes. But then after the election, they ignore them.

I also think we need to start talking to people we think we disagree with. Because Fox News is tapping into real anger on the right. When you look at the tea parties that happened on Tax Day--yes, the media focuses on the guy who's got the sign where Obama looks like Hitler, and you're probably not going to reach those people. But you also have a lot of people who are feeling left out--people who are making $30,000 to $60,000 a year.

I just talked to a woman who spent time at the tea parties. She calls herself a liberal, but she said that people wanted to talk to her because she's a former banker who's now speaking out against the bailout. She said they thanked her for coming and said we don't know what's going on, and we want to. And they're getting their information from Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.

Frankly, I believe that the powers that be don't want the people speaking out against the bailout to join forces with the people who were at the tea parties. Because imagine what kind of force that would be--if you had people on the left and people who think they're on the right joining forces.

When I was in Oklahoma, I went to a very conservative luncheon. And they were so anti-trade. All of their brochures were about workers' rights. And I said you guys could be marching on the streets of San Francisco with workers' rights activists. They said, oh no, never, not in San Francisco. But I said on this issue, you could find common ground. And I don't think the powers that be want you to know that.

I think there's something bubbling right now, and a huge opportunity here. If the left just writes off the people at the tea parties, I think that's dangerous, because there's something there. The question is how to bring the sides together and have a real dialogue, as opposed to the sound bites and the talking points.

You have to get past those, and it takes time. I met people who just gave me a sound bite. But once you've spent two hours with them, you find out they have a gay brother, they don't think abortion is a black-and-white issue, and they believe that they're being taken for a ride.

There's something brewing, and I think the left needs to do a better job of tapping into it, and finding out how to join forces with a lot of these people who they think they have nothing in common with.

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