Obama Wins; Will the People?

Future Hope column, November 5, 2008

By Ted Glick

“It was, however, the inauguration of a president [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] who promised to look to the forgotten man and the passage of legislation which promised to protect the forgotten industrial worker that gave the discontented an élan, a righteousness, that they had not had before. The impact on workers was electrifying. Felt grievances became public grievances, for the federal government itself had declared the workers’ cause to be just. In industries that had already been organized, somnolent unions sprang to life. In nonunionized industries ‘there was a virtual uprising of workers for union membership,’ the executive council of the AFL reported to its 1934 convention.”

Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, “Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail,” pps. 113 and 114

Obama and the Democrats have won and won big. Although, as this is written, it’s unclear exactly how many Senate and House seats they will win, they have clearly strengthened their hold on both houses of Congress.

These electoral victories are definitely something to celebrate. It is a good thing that the neo-conservatives, the rush-to-war crowd, the super imperialists and rabid rightists who have been dominating the Republican Party and, by and large, the federal government since 1980 have been decisively defeated.

And it is, without question, historic and of great significance that an African American man has become President of the United States of America. This is a solid indicator of important political and social change taking place among the peoples that make up this country.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the Democratic takeover of the federal government will lead to the kind of systemic, truly fundamental changes that our threatened ecosystem and our struggling peoples desperately need and that, at times, Barack Obama said he supported. After all, in the closing weeks of the election campaign, Obama explicitly referred to the Bill Clinton presidency as a positive model for the kind of presidency he would emulate.

I’m not excited in any way about the prospect of another Bill Clinton-type presidency. 1993-2000 were not exactly “the good old days.” Who pushed through NAFTA? Bill Clinton. When did banking deregulation begin in earnest? The 90’s. Who did nothing to prevent the growing dominance of insurance companies over our health care system? The Clintons. At the end of the Clinton presidency in 2000, income inequality was continuing to grow and was greater than at any time since the 1920s. Clinton’s Iraq policy led to the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, feeding widespread anti-U.S. anger that fueled the popular insurgency against the U.S. occupation after Bush invaded. And the list can go on.

One thing should be clear: the kind of changes we need will not come about because Democrats are in control. It will come about because the defeat of the Republicans, and the continued organizing at the grassroots by independent progressives, leads to the emergence of a popular mass movement for green and other jobs, debt and mortgage relief, action on global warming, clean energy, universal health care, a peace and justice foreign policy and more.

Two things will determine the overall strength and staying power of the coming popular upsurge. One will be what Obama and the Democrats do as far as the kind of legislation they advance. If they take bold action because they are pushed by the grassroots to do so, that will be a good thing in and of itself at the same time that it will empower people and build popularly-based organization. These are the things that happened in the 30’s after the victory of FDR and the Democrats.

The other necessary component, of course, is stepped-up organizing by progressives beginning right now which refuses to get taken in by Obama/Democratic Party rhetoric, that demands action and not just stirring words.
Bill Clinton was an eloquent speaker. He was often effective in showing empathy for those suffering or in trouble, for understanding the need for progressive policies. But when it came to the specifics of the legislation or the action, and for the allocation of funds, there was usually a big gap between Clinton’s eloquence and his follow through. Far too many times he was wrong in his policies or, when his initiatives were positive, he provided essentially crumbs or a few crusts when what was needed was at least a full loaf.

It is to be hoped that the large numbers of progressives who worked for Obama despite the fact that his platform is in no way consistently progressive will now put their energies and resources into grassroots organizing and issue-based and movement-building work. It is time to push Obama and the more-Democratic Congress to match his eloquence with appropriate action.

Already, before November 4th, there were reports of internal debates beginning within the Democratic Party between its progressive and its centrist wings. Journalist David Sirota, in an October 30th, Campaign for America’s Future website blog post, reported on an article in the Wall Street Journal:

“The Journal says there are three groups in the Democratic Congress – basically, progressives who want big changes, Blue Dogs who want to stop big changes in the name of deficit reduction, and those who haven’t taken a side, and are pushing Obama to go small-bore, split the difference, and move very slowly. That latter group is led by James Clyburn (D-SC.) and (big shocker!) Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) who ‘says Sen. Obama remains firmly behind his full agenda — but is flexible on timing and pacing.’ . . what that inappropriately anticipatory behavior suggests is 1) that there is going to be a battle over whether an Obama administration is going to be a third Bill Clinton term (with all the corresponding incrementalism) and 2) that this battle is going to have very high stakes.”

Fortunately, some of us have already taken initatives to bring massive political pressure to bear on the new administration and Congress. The 1Sky campaign (www.1sky.org) is organizing many hundreds of actions on November 18th in all 50 states calling upon the new government to move quickly and strongly in the first 100 days on the climate crisis. The student climate movement through the Energy Action Coalition (www.energyaction.net) has been hard at work for months to bring 10,000 or more students to D.C. at the end of February for a major “Power Shift” conference, grassroots lobbying and direct action. United for Peace and Justice has called for a massive mobilization to D.C. on March 19th, the 6th anniversary of the Iraq war (www.unitedforpeace.org). Community organizers in D.C. have begun planning for visible actions during the January 20th inauguration festivities.

This is not the time to take a long break from movement activism. What happens between now and the inauguration and then in the first 100 days will be a decisive period as far as what we can make happen with the Democrats in charge. Let’s support those progressive Democrats, Independents and Republicans, if any, who are willing to speak out boldly for the right kind of legislation, and let’s be quick to go after those elected officials who oppose it. Let’s strengthen and expand our organizations, build the connections among issue-based movements and grassroots organizations, and advance the kind of popular progressive movement the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time.

History is calling us; let’s answer the call!

Ted Glick is active in the climate movement and has been a progressive organizer since the Vietnam war. Contact and other information can be found at http://www.tedglick.com.