Holding the Obama Administration Accountable

Part 1 of a Series: Why, How, and Enabling the Struggle

While the orgy of American hagiography and self-congratulation over having elected the First Black President shows no sign of peaking a week after the election, greedy Wall Street bankers, the permanent war industry of military contractors and mercenary companies, the predatory lenders, the pharmaceutical and insurance lobbies have the new administration’s public and private ear, its wallet and dominate its inner circle. Their voices are everywhere in the mainstream media, on the lips of White House aides and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, warning that an Obama administration will have to “govern from the center”, and “tamp down the expectations” of the Democratic base who imagined they were voting in something like “Change”.

“Tamping Down Expectations” Since 2004

It is not an exaggeration to say that Barack Obama’s career since 2004 has been all about soaring promises to capture ardent voters followed by lowering standards to please his biggest financial contributors. An early foe of the Iraq war and Patriot Act during his US Senate campaign, Obama voted to continue one and pass the other once in office. Obama’s pledge to withdraw from Iraq has more loopholes by now than Swiss cheese. His promise to filibuster warrantless eavesdropping and immunity for telecom lawbreakers morphed into a vote for both, and his campaign trail promise to pursue Dr. King’s unfinished quest for economic justice flipped into lobbying the congress in support of the multi-trillion dollar no-strings-attached Wall Street bailout.

The first appointments of the new regime are truly disturbing. Illinois congressman Rahm Emanuel, the new White House chief of staff is a certifiable Democratic neocon who helped strong-arm NAFTA, welfare reform and the Telecom Act of 1996 though congress for Bill Clinton. He served on the board of Freddie Mac while it was busy inflating the housing bubble, and was an early and unrepentant advocate of invading Iraq and bombing Iran. As head of the DCCC, responsible for recruiting and funding 2006 Democratic congressional candidates, Emanuel used corporate contributions to try to knock more than a twenty antiwar Democrats out of primary races in favor of pro-war Democrats. Confronted with choices between pro-war Democrats and pro-war Republicans, voters rejected most of Emanuel’s picks, costing Democrats as many as ten Congressional seats.

Larry Summers, early front-runner to succeed Bush Treasury secretary Henry Paulson, was happy to be Enron’s eyes and ears at Treasury, according to a handwritten note to his pal Ken Lay you can find at OpenLeft.com. Summers famously remarked that third world countries were “underpolluted”. His solution to this “problem” is encouraging them to sell their share of “rights” to poison the planet’s oceans and air to wealthy western corporations through a system like the present futures and commodities exchanges. Both the outgoing Bush and the incoming Obama administrations are enthusiastic advocates of this “market-based” approach. So much for a Change We Can Breathe In.

Wild-eyed but unrealistic optimists insist that hacks like Summers and Emanuel are just the smartest guys around, and their policies are not Obama’s anyhow. But that fails the laugh test. There are plenty of smart political operators, and many equally brilliant economists who have called the mess right all along and would relish the chance to begin setting it right. Economists like Paul Krugman, Michael Hudson, or Paul Stiglitz, for instance. You don’t hire smart people for the new administration to do the opposite of what they built their careers doing. It defies common sense to expect anything else. Larry Summers will be looking out for his old friends and colleagues. Rahm Emanuel will be kneecapping advocates of single payer health care, opponents of the war, teachers, union members and anyone left of that rightward moving target they call “the center”.

In a note titled “How To Treat A President-Elect,” David Swanson put his finger on why the worst thing we can do now is sit back and pray for president-elect Obama, to leave him alone and wait to see what he does. It’s time to remind him in no uncertain terms why he was elected.

“There is no such thing as giving a democratic president a chance by leaving him alone. Precisely the way you give him a chance is by lobbying him to do what you want to see done. Anything else is an insult to him and to ourselves.

During the past eight years, we could have built the most powerful citizens’ movements ever seen and never influenced our government’s policy in the slightest. A powerful movement for peace and justice was simply ignored. Now suddenly we have a government that might listen, and now is the moment in which we should go silent? What sort of an awful antidemocratic sense of timing is that?

The best elected official in a democracy is one who listens to the changing opinion of constituents. The worst is the principled superior creature who scorns polls and prefers not to be called or faxed or Emailed or visited because he knows better than you what’s good for you, and he can get more done if you leave him alone. We have to decide which kind of president we want to have come January.

The campaign to elect the president is over. The campaign to make the president DO what he was elected FOR is underway.

How We Can Do It: Basic Principles

There isn’t any one way to do this, but there are some basic principles. We can never let our respect for high office, our admiration of his family and education, or reverence for the those that preceded him trump the urgency of our demands for peace, justice and democracy. No president or president-elect speaks from a burning bush, and nobody who works for a president is named Moses.

We should want to see an Obama presidency succeed, but that success is defined by how well he serves our interests, not his own and certainly not how he serves those who engineered the state of permanent war and economic depression we find ourselves in today. The constitution names the president “commander-in-chief of the army and navy and militia of the several states.” Civilians don’t have a commander-in-chief and don’t need one. Power may come from the top down, but authority and legitimacy flow only from the bottom up. A president either works for us, or he is as illegitimate as the disgraced Bush-Cheney regime.

It’s not enough to send the Obama transition team your suggestions on its web site, since only the administration knows who is sending them what, and you never meet or exchange information with anyone else who sends in suggestions. Very little of the organizing done for the Obama campaign will be useful in the coming period. Only the Obama campaign, and now the Obama administration possesses the email and phone lists. Organizers who don’t work for the administration but who want it to serve the people, unless they have obtained and copied those lists, will be working from scratch.

It’s time to call meetings and make demands. It’s time organize group visits to your members of Congress. It’s time to raise expectations, not lower them, to build and crank up the phone banks and email lists with messages to pressure the new administration to do what it was elected to do and not disappoint its base, as has happened so many times before.

Here’s an issue to start with — making it possible for people to fight in their own communities to raise their own incomes. The administration should make its top priority passage of the Employee Free Choice Act in the first month of the new Congress.

How the Obama Administration can Enable Its Allies and Build a Permanent Movement For Economic Justice: Passing The Employee Free Choice Act

The biggest thing the Obama administration can do to succeed in its first month, to boost the incomes and secure the economic well-being of millions of US families is to speedily pass the Employee Free Choice Act. Under the Reagan, Clinton and Bush regimes, the right of Americans in a workplace to organize a union, even to think out loud about a union, has almost disappeared. Working people have no leverage against employers, who, according to Labor Department stats, fired someone every ten minutes in 2005 for suspected union activity. Right now, that’s illegal, but the fines are so light that employers wantonly violate the law and willingly pay the fine rather than allow workers to organize.

Swift and early passage of the Employee Free Choice Act will empower families to fight their own fights for economic parity on more equal ground than we have seen in a generation. While the productivity of American workers has nearly tripled over the last thirty years, wages have remained, when adjusted for inflation, flat. All the profits of increased productivity have flowed upward to the bosses. US executives often make 400 to 1000 times the wage of their workers, as opposed to only 40 to 100 times as much in Germany or Japan, which are still out-competing the US anyway.

If the Employee Free Choice Act is passed early, an Obama administration will create thousands of local organizing opportunities and thousands of institutional allies to help hold it on the course of peace and economic justice it was elected to take. If you want to see an Obama presidency succeed on the terms of the voters who elected it, the thing to do this week is sign the petition and join the one million others who want to lift up not just the fortunes of Wall Street, but those of ordinary families.

Visit the site of American Rights At Work and Learn more about the difference unions make in access to health care and education and democratic rights in the workplace. Forward the information, the videos and the petition to everyone on your list. Blog it and put the “one million strong” ad and the videos on your own web site, if you have one. And yes, call and email the Obama Transition Team. Organize something, or join something already organized to pressure the new administration to keep its promises. If you want change, be the change.

Every week for the next several weeks BAR will print a new suggestion or two on how you can help the Obama administration make good on the promise of “Hope” and “Change” that swept it into office. Whether it intends to, or not.

Bruce Dixon is the managing editor of the Black Agenda Report, where this article first appeared. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.

18 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on November 12th, 2008 at 12:47pm #

    The number 96 is a big one. 96 months and then you divide that by 12 that will give you years to level out CO 2. The next year or less will tell us if we are going to try. This is on Obama’s shoulders. If we don’t try or greenwash it it will not be a secret for long. To many people in the World are watching and understand what it will mean to not try. In the next few years we will all see temperature spikes and rather bad weather. I hope he askes for help from the people with the knowledge and try’s. Very hard choices but still time if we start now. It is to late for some big changes and plans need to be made for that. Does President Obama know this? He sure does.

  2. Jason Oberg said on November 12th, 2008 at 1:47pm #

    The whole problem with all this noble talk of holding Obama accountable and keeping him on the right track, is: A) We shouldn’t have a leader we have to watch like a hawk not to be evil, and B) People seem to forget that he bows and will continue to bow to his corporate masters. After voting for the Big Bailout, willing to let the taxpayers reward Wall Street criminals with billions of dollars even as more people continue to lose their jobs, their homes, their health insurance, etc., what makes anyone think there is any hope for this fraudulent seducer of millions to do anything he promised to do eight months ago? And when exactly will the American people recognize that the next Republican/Democrat/corporate puppet president will be the same thing? It will go on forever in this country, because we are letting it. We deserve exactly what we get. Or, to correct myself, you will get what you deserve. I, myself, will someday be living in Canada.

  3. Max Shields said on November 12th, 2008 at 3:40pm #


    You are right, it is the system which is “evil” and the people in power are there to meet the needs of the system.

    If there is no understanding of that fundamental issue than we’re all just pounding sand.

  4. lichen said on November 12th, 2008 at 3:58pm #

    The time to make demands was a long time ago, and, indeed, Obama could have won by a larger margin if he was farther to the left, if he actually promised real solutions to climate change, to inequality, to the waste of war.

  5. Deadbeat said on November 12th, 2008 at 5:26pm #

    lichen writes…

    The time to make demands was a long time ago, and, indeed, Obama could have won by a larger margin if he was farther to the left, if he actually promised real solutions to climate change, to inequality, to the waste of war.

    I doubt Obama would have “won” if he was “further to the Left”. If Obama was further to the Left the media would have branded him a “Black Militant”. In fact they did try that (the New Yorker Magazine cover) and even tried using the “socialist” label (which has a history of its own in the African American community)

    We know that Obama is further to the right than Jesse Jackson was 20 years ago and Jackson lost the party nomination.

    The only way a real left-wing candidate can “win” is through solidarity and coherence on the Left itself. That doesn’t exist at the moment and it will take some time to achieve.

    Right now the Left’s primary electoral strategy is to convince people not to vote for the Democrats. Unfortunately, the Left is not prepared at this time to offer a viable alternative. To do so the Left needs to attract the most loyal voting bloc away from the Democrats — African Americans. The election of Obama slows that strategy down for now but when the euphoria of his election subsides and they become disillusioned by his fealty to Zionism, militarism and capitalism the question is will the Left be ready with a viable alternative.

  6. Deadbeat said on November 12th, 2008 at 5:30pm #

    Every week for the next several weeks BAR will print a new suggestion or two on how you can help the Obama administration make good on the promise of “Hope” and “Change” that swept it into office. Whether it intends to, or not.

    I’m looking forward to hearing what Ford & Dixon suggests. Now that the election is over I hope that they can toned down their rhetoric of slamming the voters (especially African American voters) and offer some tactical solutions especially for the Left to attracted disillusioned African Americans away from the Democrats.

  7. tony smith said on November 12th, 2008 at 6:53pm #

    Obama will be held accountable if he, say, murders a group of school children live on the Oprah show. Other than that – he’s got a free pass…..

  8. Ramsefall said on November 12th, 2008 at 7:09pm #


    great article you’ve written, identifies what’s needed right out of the gates — pressure from the people. As you critically point out, this is no time for people to go silent, pressure must be applied and the precedent set for expectations. Pass the EFCA within 30 days and then keep his feet to the fire. The people have to assume the role of a Congress that has forgotten how to check and balance the action of the Chief. Pressure from below.

    More holes than Swiss cheese, and nobody named Moses works for the president…good endorphin stuff.

    As for union organizers, in the US they have it pretty good in comparison, they only get fired. While mainstream US is generally blind to the events in Colombia, as an expat who lives in Colombia, I can assure you that organizing labor unions is much more dangerous here where 450+ unionists have been assassinated since 2002 which is a higher rate than the rest of the world combined. In this direction, I am holding Obama to his words of wanting to see human rights issues confronted here before any free trade act is passed. Notice how McBush just shook his head during that part of the debate? Bush apparently has other tactics to get an unfair trade agreement moving with this nation of exploited humans and resources, but let’s hope the automobile industry strategy fails to materialize, and that Obama will even pull the outrageous and ineffective over-funding of Plan Colombia.

    For more on Colombia’s conflict, please see the link on Ramsefall.

    Thanks again for the speculations and imperative action come January.

    Best to you.

  9. Brian said on November 12th, 2008 at 7:55pm #

    Most of the people who voted for Barockstar aren’t paying attention to crummy appointments like Emanuel because they’re just not that interested.
    Obama mainly won because he was in the right place at the right time and had 600 million dollars at his back.
    He is in no sense a leader, but rather the drum major of a ‘coporate generated parade. ‘ (Was is Bruce or Glen Ford who coined that phrase?)
    He is going to do try to do exactly what he said: promote free markets and an aggressive foreign policy. Both will fail.
    And the media will largely ignore progressive concerns as they usually do. And, most progressives will continue to support this guy and support him for re election, even though nothing on their agenda will have been enacted into law. Nothing.

  10. Hue Longer said on November 12th, 2008 at 10:23pm #

    tony smith said on November 12th, 2008 at 6:53pm #

    “Obama will be held accountable if he, say, murders a group of school children live on the Oprah show. Other than that – he’s got a free pass…..”

    But the “children” were seen throwing rocks at Obama and until their parents decide to stop teaching them hateful ideologies, these unfortunate instances will continue on the Oprah show. I reject the label of murderer and criminal…Obama had a right to defend himself

  11. DavidG. said on November 12th, 2008 at 11:13pm #

    Americans could break the power of corporations and the Bush or any other Administration tomorrow if they wanted to. All they have to do is to stop buying consumer products, stop paying taxes, stop voting, etc.

    All they have to do is demonstrate that they will no longer put up with elitism and inequality and the parasitic wealthy classes, that they want to create a better world, one where perpetual war doesn’t exist.

    They need to demand that indoctrination be replaced by proper education which, for the first time, would allow people to think rationally, to evaluate, to question, to become aware of their own power to control their destinies.

    It’s simple really!


  12. Giorgio said on November 13th, 2008 at 4:12am #

    I would rather say “Americans could break the power of corporations and the Bush or any other Administration tomorrow if they wanted to. All they have to do is to” refuse to fight illegal and immoral wars. Soldiers put down their arms and sailors scuttle their war ships and sink them to the bottom of the seas…This much simpler!

    There is this story going around that in WWI soldiers bogged down in trenches facing and firing at each other would on Xmas day come out and fraternize, Germans and Allies, for that day. I have often thought why these ‘misguided fools’ did not take the hint and just decide there and then and say to each other in an embrace:
    I’m absolutely sure the World would be in far, far better shape today.

  13. Giorgio said on November 13th, 2008 at 4:28am #

    Just this addendum:
    I’m absolutely sure the World would be in far, far better shape today.
    Then all you have said would naturally fall into place…

  14. mary said on November 13th, 2008 at 4:46am #

    Because they were fed this story Giorgio and are still being fed it today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
    mors et fugacem persequitur virum
    nec parcit inbellis iuventae
    poplitibus timidove tergo.”

    “How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country:
    Death pursues the man who flees,
    spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
    Of battle-shy youths.”

    ‘These words were well known and often quoted by supporters of the war near its inception and, as such, were of particular importance to soldiers of the era.” (Wikipedia)

    Have you ever read Wilfrid Owen’s poem of the same name? There is a link to it on this biographical page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilfred_owen

  15. Josie Michel-Brüning said on November 13th, 2008 at 10:34am #

    Great article and interesting discussion!!!

    As for me, living in Germany and having no influence, but sympathy, I am waiting like many others for a sign of improving or only applying your Common Law.
    Tips of the iceberg are for my friends and me the cases of Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal and the “Cuban Five”. All of them are hold as hostages of racism and revenge against those daring to resist the arbitrariness commited by the elites of the United States of America.
    Please, support those in your country fighting for the rehabilitation and release of them.

  16. gui r. said on November 13th, 2008 at 11:33am #

    a bit of history would show that no-one has ever been able to hold any US government ever accountable, even the fiction that demonstrations and uproar finished off the Vietnam aggression, because that was ended for purely opportunistic reasons. with the two – one party system and
    the electoral one (winner take all), the fictional structure of free enterprise (de-regulation) with protectionism through lobbying, etc. etc. any path for influencing either the legislative (which is in a sorry state anyway) or the executive which has been eating away at constitutional rights is barred from being available, and any movement for reform is dead in the water before reaching impetus. only a full restructuring of the state as it is now, mired in capitalist manoeuvring
    (shown now to be hollow and destructive of its own base), will bring about change.

  17. Giorgio said on November 13th, 2008 at 12:39pm #

    Thanks a ton for the comment and enlightening link.
    Very much appreciated.

  18. Shabnam said on November 13th, 2008 at 1:39pm #

    Mr. Dixon:
    Thank you for this paper. You are absolutely right when you write:
    “Obama’s pledge to withdraw from Iraq has more loopholes by now than Swiss cheese.”
    Obama is not going to end the occupation of Iraq. How could he? He has given his pledge of allegiance to Jewish Lobby and has let Zionism defines his presidency. He is nothing but a slave of Jewish Lobby and has given ‘undivided Jerusalem’ to terrorist state of Israel where other white candidates could afford not to do. Thus, he is a true slave of Zionist policy when it comes to the Middle East and Africa. His adviser SUSAN RICE on African policy especially Sudan where she is cooperating with Zionist organization such as ‘Save Darfur’, is alarming. Many Muslims, mistakenly, expected him to follow American’s interest NOT Zionist’s interest based on Divide and rule. However, his choice of advisors shows that he is DEEPLY IN THE POCKET OF ZIONIST ANTI MUSLIMS of various types. Obama must keep in mind that this choice is his and no one else, thus he is going to be held responsible for his support of terrorists, extremists and racists. His choice of Emanuel, who supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq and he is determined to see Obama stops legal Iranian nuclear energy program and leaves Israel illegal NUCLEAR WEAPON PRODUCTION untouched, more than 300 bombs, shows that Obama is not telling us the truth when he claims he was not for Iraq invasion. Obama was not in the senate to vote on Iraq invasion. However, His choices of Rahm Israel Emanuel, Ross, Anthony Lake, Susan Rice and Sonal Shah who has relationship with the Hindu racist and extremist group, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) one must seriously doubt his honesty if he were in the senate at the time. His choice of advisors shows that Obama can not survive without full support of Zionist agents and their associated extremists and racists who have advanced their positions and expanded their influence based on policy of DIVIDE AND RULE such as VHP, or ‘Save Darfur.’ Rahm Israel Emanuel strong supporter of Israel comes from a terrorist family. His father was a member of Irgun, a Jewish terrorist organization that used violence to force Palestinians out of their land. During the 1991 Gulf War, Rahm Israel Emanuel who was born in the US volunteered to serve in Israel Defense Forces. Emanuel’s father Benjamin who brought his son up as a Zionist and committed to Israel’s interest has been quoted to say:”Our Man in the White House” meaning Emanuel, knows that Rahm devotion to Israel is very strong. How Obama can protect American’s interest when he has circled himself with AIPAC supporters, unless he sells Israel’s interest as American’s interest, like Bush, meaning waging war against Israel’s enemies to fulfill the project of “the Greater Israel” hidden in “the Greater Middle East” to fool others and help gatekeepers to continue their job, keep America ignorant, and continue to kill millions of Muslims around the world with the phony ‘war on terror’ where Obama never dared to question.
    Israel has actively worked among Indians in the US and in India to bring the Indian government on board aligned with Zionist agenda and they have been successful. Barack Obama has appointed John Podesta to run his transition team. Since 2003, the home of this government-in-exile has been the Center for American Progress (CAP). Among them is a former CAP fellow and now Google employee, Sonal Shah. She currently is director for Global Development at google.

    Sonal Shah an Indian Extract has one dubious credential on her resume–her relationship with the Hindu extremist group, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). This militant group, as has been claimed, was held responsible for the genocidal pogroms against Muslims in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 that killed 2,000 people and rendered 100,000 homeless. Ms. Shah was the “National Coordinator” for the VHP in North America . So the question is: why hasn’t the Obama team vetted enough on Ms. Sonal Shah’s Hindu extremist connections? Many believe VHP is the ruthless face of Apartheid in India. One can only warn Obama and says SHAME.