President Obama is variously described as a Wall Street politician, a centrist, a Clintonian, a liberal, a progressive, and a “small d” democrat. He probably fits each category depending on circumstances, but I don’t think he consistently and completely embraces any of them.
Enclosing him in a narrowly defined, tightly sealed political category – as many on the left and right do – is a mistake. His personal and political formation suggests that any political category that isn’t contradictory and elastic will be of limited value.
It also goes in the direction of pitting the president against the working class and people. That the right does it is no surprise, but when left and progressive people do it, it is wrong strategically and extremely harmful politically.
To say that we support the president when he takes good positions and oppose him when he takes bad positions is sound advice as far as it goes.
But our attitude to the administration has to be more nuanced. It has to take into account that the success of this presidency is of great importance to racial and class relations, to the country’s future.
Let’s be blunt: there is no progressive alternative. If the president loses in 2012, we will lose too, and the country will once again be in the hands of rightwing extremism. There is no option to the left of President Obama.
Furthermore, this administration isn’t the main obstacle to social progress. It’s the right wing and the corporate class and their political representatives who either attempt to block reforms of any kind or contain them within acceptable limits to capital.
In my view, the president will change with changing circumstances, much like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Johnson.
When the rightwing AFL-CIO president announced the first Solidarity Day in 1981, we didn’t say, “About time, you bum.” To the contrary, we enthusiastically welcomed Kirkland’s announcement and mobilized broadly. Our approach to the president should be much the same.
Where we have differences with President Obama, we should state them (and we have) in a clear, constructive and unifying way. We shouldn’t do it to score points or show off our left credentials.
The main organizations of the working class and people do much the same. They don’t treat the president (or Democratic Party leaders) as an intransigent enemy. In fact, they consider him a friend and are mindful of the unrelenting attack rightwing extremists are conducting against our nation’s first African American president as well as the broader opposition – corporate, military, judicial, etc. – to his agenda.
The left has something to learn from their approach. To simply say, as some on the left do, that our main task is to bring pressure and non-negotiable demands on this administration sounds good and certainly has a militant ring. But it is simplistic and undialectical in the sense that it is blind to the mix of conflicting forces that have a hand in determining the political direction of the country.
In my view, President Obama is a reformer – not a socialist reformer, not a radical reformer, and not even a consistent anti-corporate reformer – but a reformer nonetheless, whose agenda creates space for the broader people’s movement to deepen and extend the reform process in a non-revolutionary period.
Unfortunately, the broad coalition supporting reform is not yet of sufficient size, strength and understanding to guarantee passage of his reform agenda – let alone impress its political will on the nation’s politics and stretch the president’s agenda in a radical direction.
For this reason alone, it is premature to say what the president’s political limits are, or to put it differently, to smugly dismiss him as a “Clintonian” Democrat, as simply another Democratic Party centrist.
When our movement is on the level of the popular upsurge of the 1930s and 1960s, we will be in a better position to say if his views are elastic enough to accommodate more deep-going change, as Roosevelt and Johnson did.
There will be differences and tensions with the White House as we go forward. In some cases, the differences will surface over the pace and depth of reform; in other instances, they will be more fundamental. How we navigate these differences while maintaining strategic unity is the needle that the broader movement and the left must skillfully thread.
Hurling abuse at the president or the Democrats in Congress is easy, but it doesn’t solve a very complicated problem – the further building of a broad labor-led, multiclass movement that has the capacity to decisively defeat the right and resolve the hard-edged crisis faced by the working class, people of color, women, youth, seniors, small and medium business people, sections of industrial capital, and others.
A reform-minded president – and certainly one who has transformative ambitions – is only successful to the degree that a mass and militant insurgency is part of the political mix.