Why Obama?

2012-11-03 09:22

Much, perhaps too much, has been said about US President Barack Obama and the shortcomings and accomplishments of his administration over the past four years.

The record is more mixed than either his cheerleaders or fiercest critics would like to admit.

On the positive side, under his administration there have been notable milestones: healthcare reform will provide coverage to 35 million uninsured people; the Recovery Act represents the largest expansion of anti-poverty programmes in more than 40 years; there has been financial reform, student loan reform and the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair

Pay Act extended worker rights; Obama’s landmark executive action protected more than 1 million immigrant youths from deportation; and he ended the Iraq war.

On the downside, there were failures: to hold Wall Street accountable for crashing the economy; to do right by millions of homeowners facing foreclosure; to reverse the erosion of civil liberties in the “war on terror”; to halt an alarming increase in deportations; and to take bold action on climate change. Perhaps greatest of all was the failure to convey a compelling alternative to market fundamentalism, an ideology that, notwithstanding its disastrous track record, continues to dominate policy-making and the public dialogue at all levels.

Progressives may evaluate the success of Obama’s first term differently depending on how much weight they assign to each of these issues. But however we judge the past four years, it is crucial that the US leans into this election without ambivalence, knowing that while an Obama victory will not solve all or even most of the country’s problems, defeat will be catastrophic for the progressive agenda and movement.

The US faces a conservative movement that is apocalyptic in its world-view and revolutionary in its aspirations. It is not an exaggeration to say this movement wants to roll back the great gains of the 20th century – from voting rights to women’s rights; from basic regulations on corporate behaviour to progressive taxation; from the great pillars of social security, Medicare and Medicaid to the basic rights of workers to organise and bargain collectively.

After the emergence of the Tea Party, the 2010 midterm elections, the extreme budget proposal by Mitt Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan, and last year’s state legislative sessions (which featured voter suppression, nativism, attacks on reproductive rights and vicious anti-unionism), there can be no doubting the seriousness or the ferocity of the opponents.

It is also important to note the deep racialised underpinnings of this movement, which seeks to entrench the power of an older, wealthier, white constituency and prevent an emerging majority of colour from finding its voice.

The battles over the role and size of government, taxes, the safety net, immigration and voter suppression have become proxies for this underlying demographic tension.

Should Obama lose this election, the US can expect a ruthless effort to dismantle the social contract, including efforts to use state power to decimate sources of resistance by further restricting the franchise, destroying unions and attacking any remaining centres of power for communities of colour and workers.

All of this was clear even before Romney made plain his contempt for nearly half of the American people in a leaked video.

Immediately after the election, we will face one of the most important social policy debates of our generation. Before the end of
this year, Obama and Congress must confront the so-called fiscal cliff.

That is, the deep automatic cuts in defence and domestic spending that have been mandated by the last debt deal, unless a new budget framework can be reached.

This discussion of mounting debts and deficits will take place as the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire, setting the stage for a clash of ideologies from which the victor will enjoy the spoils for years to come.

Winning the election does not guarantee a progressive outcome to this debate, far from it. But losing certainly means the dark politics of austerity will dominate the country, resulting in large-scale misery.

So the elections, not just for the presidency but for Congress and statehouses across the country, are job one. But winning those elections is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a revival of progressive politics.

What’s next? In the period following the election, progressives must remain engaged and mobilised. Given the looming fiscal debate, the US needs an alternative to austerity that emphasises three points:

» The country faces a jobs crisis. Creating millions of new jobs by investing in infrastructure, the green economy, care jobs and, yes, the public sector is not just a matter of reducing human suffering, it is essential to laying the foundation for long-term fiscal stability and shared prosperity. Progressives cannot simply buy into the “deficit first” frame. There is no winning if they
do not begin to redefine the problem and break the elite consensus.

» Social security must be protected and strengthened, along with Medicare, Medicaid and other critical programmes, particularly those serving the most vulnerable people.

It has become conventional wisdom that entitlements must be “reformed” – a code for reducing benefits and raising the retirement age, since “Americans” are all living longer anyway. This is nonsense. As economics Professor Paul Krugman has put it: “The people who really depend on social security, those in the bottom half of the distribution, aren’t living much longer. So you’re going to tell janitors to work until they’re 70 because lawyers are living longer than ever?”

Simple measures, such as lifting the cap on the payroll tax threshold, would guarantee solvency for social security for more than 75 years and allow the US to finance more generous benefits for low-income beneficiaries.

» To invest in job creation and preserve the social contract, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy must end. The frame of the debate must shift to the left without fear or apology.

One great lesson of Obama’s first term was that Democrats made progress when they were pushed, and they stalled when rights groups waited and watched. Civil rights movements challenged both Republicans and Democrats, and achieved significant policy wins.

Healthcare reform would never have made it over the finish line without relentless pressure on moderate Democrats from the grassroots level. Only robust campaigns operating independently of both parties have a chance at putting jobs, foreclosures, immigration reform and climate change on the agenda.

This is especially urgent in the case of racial justice. The real unemployment rate for African-Americans is now above 22%, including part-time workers who want full-time jobs and those who gave up looking altogether. That’s nearly twice the rate that white workers face, and it amounts to a catastrophic depression in some major cities across the country.

People of colour have seen a generation of progress in building wealth wiped out by the recession. Median white wealth is now nearly $100 000 (R860 000), compared with under $5 000 for blacks and Latinos. Whatever the real or perceived constraints on the president’s ability to engage the confluence of race, poverty and economics, those constraints do not apply to social activists working with vulnerable people every day.

It is also critical to push for an agenda to strengthen democracy in 2013 to combat the growing power of organised money.

Measures to strengthen unions, expand the franchise and provide a path to citizenship for immigrants are not just good public policies, they also empower working people.

The political right used its takeover of state governments to shrin

k democracy, as in Wisconsin, which passed harsh anti-union and voter suppression laws.

If and when there is a chance to use power to expand democracy, whether through immigration reform or executive actions to strengthen unions or enforce voting rights, it must be done.

Not just because these measures are important in themselves but because they are levers that can push the other changes the US needs.

If 2008 was a time for the audacity of hope, the years ahead are a time for sobriety, determination, patience and resilience. The problems the US faces are deep enough that there will be no quick fix. The most important question for progressives is how to build a movement for economic justice, a people’s movement that

can topple the elite austerity consensus, and overcome the massive money and energised conservative movement on the other side.

The real crises facing the country are barely being discussed and rarely do proposed solutions match the problems. One in three Americans face material hardship, 20 million live in extreme poverty, 12.5 million are officially unemployed, and wages and working conditions are in decline for the majority.

The new framework for shared prosperity developed by Jacob Hacker and Nate Loewentheil, which was endorsed by a broad swathe of labour, community and civil rights groups, spells out an alternative to austerity with the capacity to address these crises. But only an organised constituency can give such ideas life.

Part of the task before progressives is to build a deep alliance of movement forces – labour, community, women, faith, civil rights, immigrants and others – behind a broad social vision. No part of the movement has the resources or strategic capacity
to solve its problems by itself.

The other part of the task is to reach out to Americans who do not already agree with the Campaign for Community Change, or who perhaps haven’t heard from us. An insular left that deludes itself into thinking it is stronger than it is, that talks mainly to itself and is not constantly creating new on-ramps to participation, will fail dismally to meet the challenges of this historic moment.

This recruitment challenge presents some hurdles for progressives. Most Americans hold complicated and sometimes contradictory views about the economy, but there has been a turn away from public solutions towards private ones.

As Ronald Brownstein observed in the National Journal earlier this year: “One theme consistently winding through the polls is the emergence of what could be called a ‘reluctant self-reliance’, as Americans look increasingly to reconstruct economic security from their own efforts, in part because they don’t trust outside institutions to provide it for them.

“The surveys suggest that the battered economy has crystallised a gestating crisis of confidence in virtually all of the nation’s public and private leadership class, from elected officials to the captains of business and labour.

“Taken together, the results render a stark judgment: at a time when they believe they are navigating much more turbulent economic waters than earlier generations, most Americans feel they are paddling alone.”

Such changes in perspective, together with the attack on and decline of unions – where habits of community, reciprocity and collective action have historically been nourished – mean the case for public, collective action faces a steep climb.

There will have to be an experiment with new ways of building power and giving voice to working people. Such experiments are, in fact, already under way in diverse settings across the country. What they have in common is reconstructing the role of paid organisers, putting volunteers front and centre, aligning people behind deeply meaningful visions instead of short-term issue transactions, and combining deep education and relationship building with creative action.

There is nothing new about any of these methods. They have powered all the great movements that have changed America, and the US needs a recommitment to them. The patient work of movement building lacks the seductive power of many of the strategies in vogue among progressives, but there is no substitute for it. And there is a huge appetite for it in working-class communities across the country.

Perhaps the most resonant line of Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech was when he said: “So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me, it was about you.” If anyone ever thought that an Obama presidency would by itself produce dramatic change back then, they are wiser this year.

The country’s progressive history is a history of getting our hope fix from movements, not just from individuals. The extraordinary example of Brazil – which has defied world trends, lifted 40 million people out of poverty, reduced inequality and passed major affirmative action legislation – demonstrates the power of social movements.

Over many years, Brazilian leaders aligned key movement sectors around a transformative vision, focused on recruiting the unorganised, engaged in politics and changed a country.

There are similar signs of movement in the US – in senior centres in Akron, in housing projects in Charlotte and churches in Phoenix – where ordinary people are coming together to talk about how the country got into this mess, what it has meant to them and the people they love, and what can be done to get out of it.

They are working tirelessly in this election because they know just how much it matters, but they are clear-eyed about the organising work that must continue after election day.

» Bhargava is director of the Campaign for Community Change
© The Nation, distributed by Agence Global

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