The threat of a Romney-Ryan regime should be enough to convince a narrow American majority to vote for Barack Obama, including the disappointed rank-and-file of social movements. A widening of economic and racial inequality. Cuts in Medicare and Medicad. More global warming and extreme weather. Strangling of reproductive rights. Unaffordable tuition. The Neo-cons back in the saddle. Two or three more right-wing Supreme Court appointments to come. Romney as Trojan horse for Ryan the stalking horse and future presidential candidate.
The consolidation of right-wing power would put progressives on the defensive, shrinking any organizing space for pressuring for greater innovations in an Obama second term. Where, for example, would progressives be without the Voting Rights Act programs such as Planned Parenthood, or officials like Labor Secretary Hilda Solis or EPA administrator Lisa Jackson?
But the positive case for More Obama and Better Obama should be made as well. History will show that the first term was better than most progressives now think. A second-term voter mandate against wasteful wars, Wall Street extravagance, and austerity for the many, led by elected officials including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Barbara Lee, Raul Grijalva, Jim McGovern and Keith Ellison, would be, in the language of the Pentagon, a target-rich field of opportunities.
Why Obama's achievements are dismissed or denied by many on the white liberal-left is a question worth serious consideration. It may only be a matter of legitimate disappointment after the utopian expectations of 2008. It could be pure antipathy to electoral politics, or a superficial assessment of how near impossible it is to change intransigent institutions. It could be a vested organizational interest in asserting there is no difference between the two major parties, a view wildly at odds with the intense partisan conflicts on exhibit every day. Or it could even be a white blindness in perceptions of reality on the left. When African American voters favor Obama 94 percent to zero, and the attacks are coming from the white liberal-left, something needs repair in the foundations of American radicalism.
I intend to explore these questions further during the election season. The point here is that they cumulatively contribute to the common liberal-left perception that Obama is only a man of the compromised center, a president who has delivered nothing worth celebrating. The anger with Obama on the left, combined with broad liberal disappointment with the last three years, results in a dampened enthusiasm at the margins, which could cost him the election.
By their nature, the achievements of social movements are lesser versions of original visions. As the venerable socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas used to lament, when asked if he was proud of Social Security being carried out, "they carried it out in a coffin." The limits of the 1935 Social Security Act lay in its token payments, limited eligibility, and lack of health insurance -- all a result of political compromises thought necessary at the time. Because paying for the program by taxation was much too controversial, Social Security was based on employer and employee contributions. That is what Norman Thomas apparently meant in describing the program as the death of his original vision.
While the forerunners of social progress are disappointed in the results they achieve, it should be of some comfort that the gravediggers have been trying to bury Social Security for 75 years.
As the Port Huron Statement concluded, "If we appear to seek the unattainable, let it be said we do so to avoid the unimaginable." With dreams like that, it was inevitable that most of us cynically viewed the reforms of the Kennedy and later Johnson administrations as tokenism. Many young radicals of my time -- SNCC and SDS -- distrusted the Kennedys as too gradual and Martin Luther King Jr. as too accommodating.
But despite all the inherent tensions and faction fights, social movements do achieve significant reforms, which I would define as empowering the powerless, opening up spaces previously closed, and expanding material benefits for those previously denied them. Prominent examples included:
- The 1965 Voting Rights Act, which racists and Republicans have attempted to thwart from its passage to the present day;
- The enfranchisement of young people who could be drafted but could not vote;
- Migrant worker protections achieved by the United Farm Workers;
- Medicare and Medicaid (1965);
- The US-Soviet nuclear test ban treaty was a response to global pressure for peace (1963);
- Creation of the Peace Corps in response to a student campaign;
- The birth of opposition to the Cold War (1965 SDS march and teach-ins).
We could neither anticipate nor stop the Vietnam escalation starting in 1965, nor the growth of the National Security State thereafter. The collaboration that existed on domestic issues -- cresting in the unity of labor and the civil rights movement in the 1963 March on Washington -- did not extend to foreign policy where labor and the Democratic establishment were battling communist-connected insurgencies. But the achievements were not as token as we feared. Under moral and political pressure, Kennedy evolved from early managerialism to become a crucial partner on voter registration, civil rights and the arms race before his 1963 assassination. Were it not for the assassinations of that time, our movements would have been participants in a broad coalition that came to power. A strategy for social change grew from our direct experience, that of outside (often radical) forces taking direct action to awaken and link with establishment insiders to achieve all that was possible, and to lay the foundations for later movements.
After several historical zigs and zags, a similar progressive moment came in the year 2000, when a popular American majority elected Al Gore president only to be thwarted by the US Supreme Court. Gore would have given us a 10-year head start in facing global warming, tested the limits of an environmental presidency and, arguably, kept us out of the multi trillion-dollar Iraq War.
Some on the left still believe that Kennedy was an imperialist who would have been no different than Lyndon Johnson in sending 500,000 Americans to Vietnam, and that Gore was no different than George Bush. Such opinions are wrong on both the facts and conjectures, driven more by ideology or disdain for two-party politics than by the weight of historical evidence.
What these cynical worst-case analyses leave out is the role of strong social movements and progressive constituencies in shaping the political character of the presidency. Just as Abraham Lincoln was influenced by the slaves and Abolitionists, and just as Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal was shaped by labor and populist movements, so the student, women's, civil rights and environmental movements carved an essential place for themselves in the future that might have been under John Kennedy and, later, Al Gore.
Barack Obama, like Lincoln, FDR and John Kennedy, has been criticized as too incremental by his base and too radical by his enemies. An irate Thomas Frank concluded that Obama will never pursue a second New Deal because "that is precisely what Obama was here to prevent." (Harpers, September 2012) In much analysis, Obama's role seems to be to give austerity and global imperialism an African-American face.
Liberal icons share the disappointment from their perspective, too. Paul Krugman, who supported Hillary Clinton, wrote of the 2009 stimulus package, "Mr. Obama's victory feels more than a bit like defeat." (Grunwald, 237) A common complaint from the left and liberals was that Obama was too timid, as if oratory could have achieved the public option in health care.