Sure, they said, Obama had led peace and justice-oriented liberal and progressive movement people to believe he would end rather than escalate middle east wars, punish rather than ignore those who had lied us into the Iraq war and those who had ordered or carried out torture, end discrimination against gays in the military and elsewhere, secure rather than undermine domestic civil liberties and human rights, fight for rather than duck serious changes in immigration and in environmental protection, and insist on at least a public option in health care and lowered prices for pharmaceuticals. But, hey -- those people who paid attention to these details were only a small minority, and they would rally around Obama no matter what, giving him no incentive to listen to them. After all, Obama was just being "realistic" about the limitations of his power.
I wondered why George Bush, who came into office without any electoral mandate, managed to fight for and demand his Right-wing program, while Obama seemed unable to even articulate a coherent worldview and kept falling back onto the formulations and assumptions of the Reagan/Bush years about the wisdom of the marketplace and the need to fight an endless war against terror. Spineless to his core, Obama seemed unable to fight for anything -- his style was to concede before a battle, except if it was a battle to put down his own progressive and liberal base.
The straw that broke the camel's back for many was when Obama capitulated to the Republicans on tax benefits for the ultra-wealthy. All Obama had to do was announce that he would veto any new tax measure that included retaining benefits for the billionaires, and then explain over and over to the American people that they could have tax relief if the Republicans would let them pass a proposal that did not include giving $145 billion to the super-wealthy. Let the Republicans be seen as responsible for the lack of tax relief. And Obama could have announced that he would encourage the unemployed in every state to visit their Congressional reps and Senators during the Christmas holiday -- and giving out their home addresses so that the two million people not being given extensions of their unemployment benefits by Republican legislators would be able to hear what that meant to their constituents who were suffering. All this, of course, was ruled out as "unrealistic" by the media.
When the mass media's talking heads rush in to tell people in the liberal or progressive world that our ideas are "unrealistic" (which essentially translates into: not in accord with the interests of the powerful elites whom they serve and who own much of the media), you know you may be onto something.
That's how I felt Thursday, Dec. 9, when Politico.com responded to my op-ed in the Washington Post last Saturday suggesting that liberals and progressives need to run an alternative to President Obama in the 2012 Democratic primaries.
Politico.com restated the warnings the day before from the New York Times which also cited my article. Their shared theme: "You don't have a plausible candidate, so forget it." Among others, I had suggested Senators Feingold or Sanders; Congresspeople Barbara Lee, Raul Grijalva, Lynn Woolsey, Joe Sestak, or Dennis Kucinich; and also Rachel Maddow, Robert F.Kennedy Jr., and Bill Moyers. I subsequently added Michael Moore and Howard Dean. This was just the tip of the iceberg of progressive thinkers who also have a warm heart and could communicate to many Americans who remain in pain today from policies initiated by Republicans, continued by Democrats, and from their own sense of humiliation at having believed that real change was at hand when they voted for Obama (whom I personally strongly supported in the primaries). It would be great if Huffington Post would run a poll to see who else we should consider and which potential candidates get the greatest support from its readers.
Sure enough, the phone rang as I was writing this for HuffPost, and MSNBC invited me on to talk about the same thing Thursday evening! Again I was told -- "you don't have the candidate so why take you seriously?" In fact, that was the argument many media gave to not cover the story at all. At least Politico.com had been honest enough to admit that "there is very real fury at Obama following what they see as his caving to the right and agreeing to extend the income tax rates put in place by President George W. Bush. It may not be scientific, but the online poll on the popular net-roots website Crooks and Liars offers an indication of the anger. Seventy-three percent -- more than 7,000 people -- said there should be a primary challenge against the president."
The truth is that there is a huge rebellion going on against the Democrats by their own supporters. Close to half of all Democrats voted with their feet in 2010 -- by not even bothering to vote. Many feel angry at specific policy betrayals. Even more just feel humiliated that they opened themselves up to hope at Obama's insistence that "yes, we can" only to find themselves being lectured by Obama about "being realistic." Yet Obama still clings to the fantasy that he will do better by cuddling up to the Republicans than articulating and fighting for a progressive agenda.
And to the extent that we play along with the logic of lesser evilism, we get trapped decade after decade. We are partly to blame ourselves for not having created viable electoral alternatives.
The big mistake we made in 2007 and 2008 was to have a candidate before we had a movement and platform to which we could hold the candidate. Repeating the errors of the previous decades, many of us fell into the "identity politics" trap -- we wanted Obama or Clinton not because they articulated a clear and detailed progressive agenda, but because of their race or gender.
We soon found out what a huge mistake that was. So if we are going to develop a challenge to Obama in 2010, we must start with a platform and worldview, not with the choice of another "dream candidate." Yet that platform and worldview has to avoid the cliche's of the past and speak in a language that touches people's hearts and yearnings even as it is progressive and populist.
Lets start with the vision, a new New Deal, and call it simply this: The Caring Society -- Caring for Each Other, Caring for the Planet. To get this, America needs a New Bottom Line! Replace the ethos of selfishness, narcissism and materialism rooted in the money and power orientation of the capitalist marketplace with a new ethos of love and generosity. Lets start judging corporations, social policies, government actions, our educational system, our economic system and even our personal behavior to be "productive, efficient or rational" to the extent that they maximize our capacities to be loving and caring for each other, generous and kind, ethically and ecologically sensitive, capable of seeing every other human being on the planet as equally precious and sacred as ourselves, and capable of responding to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of All Being.
That's a New Bottom Line. And those who agree with it we call "spiritual progressives" whether or not they believe in God or are part of any organized religious or spiritual community. I hope you'll go to our website at SpiritualProgressives.org, read our Spiritual Covenant with America, and actually join us!
Here are some examples of what should be indispensable parts of a program for a progressive challenge to Obama and the Blue Dog Democrats: