Friday, January 01, 2010

the Obama disconnect: why progressives ain't happy with Obama's first year in office

It's no secret that progressives are not happy with President Obama's performance over the past year. Jane Hamsher, Markos Moulitsas, and Digby are in open revolt over the Senate health care reform bill. John Aravosis over at Americablog has been railing against President Obama for his failure to deliver on promises regarding LGBT equality. The peace movement, including MoveOn & Brave New Films, has been completely undermined by President Obama's decision to double down in Afghanistan. And don't even get the Canadians started -- Naomi Klein and Ian Welsh could melt the paint off a barn with their withering criticism of President Obama's failures on climate change (Klein) and his corporatist approach to the financial crisis (Welsh).

With that in mind, the conversation in the progressive blogosphere over the last month has been truly bizarre. Progressives have measured Obama's actions and concluded that he has failed to deliver on core promises and principles. Meanwhile, Obama loyalists like Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, and Josh Marshall have all jumped into the fray to say, 'Whoa! Whoa! That's CRAZY TALK to say that Obama is not a progressive or to say that he has failed to deliver on key promises.' Then they'll trot out a soundbite from the campaign and say, 'See! See! Obama always was a moderate (Republican) and never claimed otherwise.' Strangely they also trot out other soundbites to say 'See! See! Obama really is a true progressive (even though he is acting like a moderate Republican from the Northeast).' (And yes, I know that E. Klein, Silver, and Marshall do not think of themselves as "Obama loyalists" more like just good "mainstream" Newsweek Democrats. But the fact remains that they are doing the heavy lifting for Obama in the progressive blogosphere right now).

And into this scrum walks


marco said...

hey Toby- as a former Obama volunteer, as well as someone who was inspired after the campaign to (try to) continue organizing with OFA, I can confirm a sense of disconnect (and disappointment), particularly with the post-election grassroots movement. It was pretty clear right away that OFA was not authentic and did not intend to offer any kind of real "bottom up" experience or "autonomy-in-communion". It would basically keep the email list alive, with some non-controversial (and uncritical) activities encouraged, but no meaningful participation in a fuller sense of democracy. In essence, OFA neutralized a lot of grassroots energy, rather than deepen and evolve it into what could have been a good and powerful thing. On the other hand, I appreciate the extremely serious challenges that Obama, as President, has had to face, and I don't think he's done a bad job per se. He's not a dictator; he still has to work with Congress and an incredibly complex calculus of compromise, in order to preserve a sense of confidence and get some partial things done. It seems to me he's playing it safe -- opting to pursue change that has an 80% chance of passing (but is only 40% of what progressives might want), rather than what might have a 40% chance of passing (but would contain 80% of what they want). Or do you think that's too forgiving a narrative? I still tend to trust Obama's basic instincts and judgment, and find on the Left an arrogance that everything should be done exactly as they wish— damn what anyone else thinks! Not to say the Right isn't 100x worse… but there is something to be said for holding a steady center, particularly for a young, black president in a polarized nation, in uncertain times. He might understand the limits of his power better than we do.

RFK Action Front said...

Hi Marco!

Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I found myself agreeing with most everything you wrote.

I think what's most jarring about this past year is that during the campaign, candidate Obama said 'politics works like THIS (grassroots, decentralized, tech savvy, etc.)' And now that he's in office, his actions are saying, 'forget what I said earlier, politics is actually like THIS (limited half measures, slow, corporate dominated).' It appears that perhaps: 1.) Obama didn't actually realize how politics really works (possible but not likely), 2.) he's had a change of heart now that he's inside the White House, or 3.) (most cynically) that the campaign was just a head fake -- telling us what we wanted to hear but not believing it (I sure hope that is not true).

What is most disappointing to me about this past year is the missed opportunity to create new forms of democratic participation. I went to Netroots Nation in 2008, four months before the election. And there were all of these panels on how to aggregate and sort the wisdom of the crowd -- basically how to take a huge e-mail list and turn it into a thinking, dynamic, powerful political machine. In fact, Chris Hughes himself led one of the best panels on the topic and there are researchers at NASA and a number of academic institutions who are coming up with amazing new tools for collective decision making and problem solving. Basically for the first time in history there are lots of tools available for creating new participatory forms of governance -- from crowd sourcing to rating points on comment threads that enable the best ideas to float up to the top.

At the time it appeared a given that OFA would be turned into some sort of social media hybrid political organization that would be a two way dialogue between the administration and the base.

And now, a year later, that's all gone. OFA and the arsenal of social media tools that the Obama campaign mastered are used only as a broadcast channel -- no dialogue, no participation, just a TV channel to talk directly to the base to tell them what to do. (Interestingly, in response the base is creating a dialogue anyway -- by unsubscribing, blogging, and using their own e-mail lists to push back.)

I agree with you, we may just be witnessing the art of the possible. Like you I really do trust Obama's instincts and think he is thoughtful, careful, and wise. But when one looks back over the promises and potential to use new tools to transform politics forever, and then when one realizes that now a year later it's basically politics as usual (with a slightly larger e-mail list), wow that sure feels like a missed opportunity.

Jeanne said...

first of all, i'm not nearly as well read as you and am not by any means able to dig into all the analyses of obama you refer to. that said, i think marco summed up a lot of what i'm feeling about obama's first year in office. from my distant vantage point, i am an avid optomist and believe that change takes time. i agree with you that it's disappointing, and i sure as hell hope it's not a missed opportunity. i do think obama is smart enough to know how politics works and i do believe that he truly wants things to function differently. however, while he's the one on top, he's got an insanely convoluted, entrenched system to work with / against. my fear is that by not coming in fast and furious to make the changes he spoke of, that we'll all settle back into things as usual.

anyway, your post reminded me of an article i read awhile back -- it's probably nothing new for you, but it's another analysis of the obama train.

RFK Action Front said...

Hi Jeanne:

Thanks for your comment!

Thanks for the thoughtful link too! I'd really enjoy having a whole conversation sometime about Obama's Nobel speech. Just a couple thoughts to chew on in the meantime...

It struck me that President Obama made an eloquent case for just war theory -- and in the process also may have dismantled 50 years of progressive arguments for nonviolence. Obama said:

"We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago – “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak –nothing passive – nothing na├»ve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."

I think President Obama is correct of course. But on the other hand wow, he's saying, 'yes, MLK's ideas were nice. But neither MLK nor Gandhi ran a country. I do and the view is different from here.' (In fact, the sentence, "A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies." is a direct repudiation of Gandhi.) For 50 years progressive thought has been guided by the principle of nonviolence -- by the notion that there are moral laws to the universe and the idea that we can change hearts and minds solely through our peaceful example.

Indeed candidate Obama seemed to give a nod towards that idea during the campaign as he repeatedly emphasized in debates that he would sit down and talk with any world leader no matter how repugnant his/her regime may be. But then in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech it seemed that President Obama was saying, 'yes I've read King and Gandhi. But you can't run a country on their ideas.' Again, I think he's correct. But in some ways it felt to me like the end of an era of progressive thought on the question of nonviolence.

I surprised more commentators have not remarked upon this because I thought it was a pretty big deal.

Cassandra Yorgey said...

I'm a bit conflicted on Obama... I'm still a supporter, but I worry he has let the small group of extreme right-wingers convince him they are more powerful/numerous/whatever than they really are and thus making the "center" far more right than it is in actuality. Although, I am very aware that it is Obama's first year in office and he may be still getting his footing... but overall it seems like he's losing ground. Like he ran right up to the edge of the Cliff of Awesome and at the last minute instead of trying out his new wings he took a step back and decided to use the rope and pulley climbing system everyone else had left behind.

As for violence, I'm all in favor of trying to avoid it, but I find that is best done by being prepared for it. Ideals of non-violence are great, but it's also useful to acknowledge that we do not yet live in an ideal world.