Obama: Beyond Savior or Trickster

As President Obama enters his fourth month in office, two tendencies among progressive-minded Americans seem most hazardous to the political health of the country. The gist of one approach is that Obama can’t do anything seriously wrong; the other is that he can’t do anything seriously right.

Among the tendencies, the first is more widespread and more dangerous. All kinds of atrocious policies — from Lyndon Johnson’s war on Vietnam to Jimmy Carter’s midterm swerve rightward to Bill Clinton’s neoliberal measures such as NAFTA, “welfare reform” and Wall Street deregulation — were calamities facilitated by acquiescence or mild dissent from many left-leaning Democrats.

Some historical analogies are acutely relevant, and the LBJ/Vietnam Obama/Afghanistan comparison is one of them. During the first couple of years after Johnson’s inauguration in January 1965, with few exceptions, liberal members of Congress and leaders of liberal-oriented groups routinely voiced support for the war escalation; others mumbled their misgivings as the president ordered more troops and firepower to Vietnam. Today, similar mumbling about Afghanistan attests to the repetition compulsion disorder of the U.S. warfare state.

Whatever can be said for avoidance of ruffling feathers in the new administration is greatly outweighed by the dire long-term effects. We can’t build a vibrant progressive movement — or strengthen a base capable of moving the country in progressive directions for the long haul — by winking and nodding at Democratic policies that would have drawn our sharp criticism if they were being implemented by a Republican administration.

Another destructive dynamic: A corporatized Democratic administration helps Republicans put on populist costumes and pose as opponents of corporate elites. For instance, when Democratic officials and progressive allies act as though the massive federal giveaways to banks are no cause for outrage, demobilization of the party’s progressive base is predictable.

With the November midterm elections now 18 months away, the specter of the post-NAFTA 1994 election that gave control of Congress to Republicans is an ominous poltergeist that’s already haunting Capitol Hill. Rather than serving, yet again, as enablers for a Democratic administration to pursue a corporate-friendly course, progressives should be pushing hard in the opposite direction.

Among the Democratic base, the widespread eagerness to put Obama on a very high pedestal is emblematic of a depoliticized culture. Fixating on his impressive personal qualities is a way of turning the overall political picture into a fuzzy background.

Oft-cited, yet still worth recalling, is the spot in his book The Audacity of Hope where Obama wrote: “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” At least as importantly, Obama is a master of speaking and acting in ways that gravitate to the center of political gravity.

We should be hard at work at the grassroots to move that center of political gravity in progressive directions, which requires speaking truth about power — a far different endeavor than reflexively defending or vilifying Obama.

It should be axiomatic — for commentators who refuse to be partisan hacks, for activists with progressive commitments, for anyone determined to elude Orwellian doublethink — that presidential actions and policies should be assessed and supported or opposed on their merits.

Rejecting Obama iconography and demonology is necessary for a healthy progressive movement. We won’t get far by trying to leapfrog the actual political conditions of the country. Our task is to change them.

Obama’s corporate and military policies are reflections of anti-democratic imbalances of power that are part of the political economy. We shouldn’t let him off the hook any more than we should refuse to acknowledge his positive actions, such as progressive aspects of his proposed budget.

The possibilities for progressive solutions will be bound up in propelling change from the grassroots — the methodical, often-tedious and essential tasks of talking and listening and organizing in communities across the country. When President Obama takes a progressive step, it has been made possible by progressive activism. When President Obama takes an anti-progressive step, it has been facilitated by progressives muting their criticism. The antidote to political poisons is to intelligently raise our voices.

Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction.org and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His books include War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He writes the Political Culture 2013 column. Read other articles by Norman, or visit Norman's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. voice of experience said on April 22nd, 2009 at 10:54am #

    Norman Solomon is a fink with a cute haircut. He functions as the Collaborator’s last line of defense, trying to keep your thinking within bounds, within parameters acceptable to the Zio-Imperialist Federal Reserve gangsters who own the Demock-rat Party. No matter how clear it is that Obama is just Bush with a Marketing Focus on a slightly different demographic, this fink tries to keep you jumping through all the same old hoops, playing those same old games set up for you by Histadrut-allied outfits like the “Progressive Democrats of America”.

  2. Max Shields said on April 22nd, 2009 at 11:09am #

    With all due respect Norman, while I think you are a sincere about your desire for peace over empire’s endless war, I must say, Obama is doing exactly what he said he’d do when you saw him as the savior.

    The Dem Party didn’t just become a corporate owned party nor has the politics of ingenuity just come into being. The great danger Obama poses is that he puts a faux progressive “face” to the doctrine of empire and endless war. That was always the concern people like Glenn Ford and many others who care more about the causes of justice than the political duopoly of Empire saw with the emergence of the first “black” president. There are still millions of African Americans who don’t see past the superficiality of Obama’s race to his neoliberal and even racist policies as he continues the GWB legacy.

    We can’t make excuses anymore, we need REAL CHANGE.

  3. Martha said on April 22nd, 2009 at 12:19pm #

    Max, I don’t believe he’s sincere at all. I see it as more fluff from the Pleged Barack Obama Delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention. I guess as long as he’s fluffing, he’s not able to work so hard to get Bonnie Faulkner taken off the air at KPFA though.

  4. kalidas said on April 22nd, 2009 at 2:17pm #

    “Journalism largely consists of saying “Lord Jones is Dead” to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”

    G. K. Chesterton

  5. lichen said on April 22nd, 2009 at 6:13pm #

    Norman Solomon; delegate and defender of a war criminal; ex-journalist.

  6. Tennessee-Chavizta said on April 22nd, 2009 at 8:40pm #

    Max Shields: indeed, Obama is not even a state-capitalist. If Obama would’ve been at least a state-capitalist, he would’ve nationalized some banks already, and some giant corporations of utility services, like electricity, communications, and other goods and services provider in this country. And he would’ve reformed the US oligarchical right-wing constituion.

    But Obama is leaving power very intact, there is not an economic and political power-shift in USA from the upper-classes to the middle classes and to the lower classes.

    The thing is that in USA, people don’t know about the importance of democratizing a nation, by reforming the constitution and by nationalizing private corporations. So like you said, the poors of USA just see in Obama that he is black so he most be a socialist for the people, not a Wall Street capitalist like he really is.



  7. Eddie said on April 23rd, 2009 at 4:10pm #

    What Martha and lichen said. To the tenth power.