Last night I attended the annual Concert for Peace to benefit Michigan Peaceworks.
I left angry.
The mood of the concert, especially of the emcee, was one of despair.
Now, I can understand why progressives would be dissatisfied with the Obama presidency now: we’re still in Iraq, we’re escalating in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay is still running, and healthcare reform and global warming policy are more modest than many would have hoped for.
Still, I found the soul-sucking despair of the concert to be ill-informed and inappropriate. Here’s why:
- Liberal Obama-bashing forgets just how bad things were under Bush, or how bad they would be under McCain. Yes, I want a more robust health care bill, but McCain’s plan was to tax employer healthcare benefits. Yes, I want the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, but McCain was the one singing “bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran,” and under Bush that almost happened. And climate change legislation wouldn’t even be on the map.
- If progressives write off Obama too early, we will limit his ability to promote progressive policies. What I hear from many on the left right now is that they’ve given up on anything good from Obama. Well, if that’s the case, and if we’re not out there organizing for good things to come from the presidency, then you can pretty much expect he won’t have the political capital to do anything good. The tea-party crowd will have the day.
- Putting all our hopes on Obama is a type of “messianic politics.” It assumes that an all-wise, all-powerful leader will ascend to the throne presidency, save the world from the forces of big oil and arms contractors, and usher in a time of progressive bliss. It doesn’t work that way. Even the best political leaders need strong social movements to hold them accountable. As FDR famously said when lobbied for progressive union policies, “Okay, you’ve convinced me. Now go out there and make me do it.” Leadership is important, we’ll get more good and less bad out of Obama than we would have McCain, but we still need to organize.
- Expecting large-scale wins on the whole progressive agenda in just a year ignores that presidents can only deliver a small amount to their base. In his first six years, President Bush was very powerful, yet he didn’t ban abortion. He didn’t ban lawsuits against large corporations. He didn’t privatize social security. There were many items on the conservative agenda that he could not deliver, and that was even with his massive support post-9/11. I think the hopes were too high to think that in less than 1 year Obama would restore the economy, bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, end global warming pollution, create a single-payer healthcare system, and abolish subsidies for agribusiness. If those were your hopes, I’m sorry, but they deserve to be dashed.
- Disappointment in Obama’s regarding Afghanistan and healthcare reform forget that what he’s delivered is pretty much what he promised. Obama never promised a public option, much less single-payer healthcare. He did promise to escalate in Afghanistan. Also, as Juan Cole points out, when he was sworn in, the military brass didn’t necessarily buy into getting out of Iraq, and it seems he’s won that battle.
So, where do we go from here?
- We need to recognize our job is to change the context in which the politicians make their decisions. We need to organize so that it is easy for Obama to make decision we support and hard for him to make ones we opp0se (this would be the same approach if anyone were in the White House). We can’t do this if we only hang out in our liberal ghettos talking to people who only agree with us and whining on blogs (like I’m doing now). We need to get out there and talk to people who don’t already agree with us and we need to help the people who do agree with us to take action.
- We need to get the most good out of the Obama presidency as we can. That means criticizing decisions we don’t like. It also means giving support to decisions we do like. Like Rabbi Lerner of Tikkun says, our job is to “support Obama to be Obama.”
- We need to learn how to govern and inspire. The Bush years were great training on how to criticize, complain, and tear down. We’ve almost gotten to be too good at that. Now we need to learn how to lead and build up when we have potential allies in power, and I don’t think the rapid-response criticism we perfected under the previous administration is the best way to do that.
Thanks for sticking with me through this little rant. After eight years of working constantly to defeat stupid ideas like building new nuclear weapons or bombing Iran, I’m grateful for the chance now to work to support good ideas like healthcare reform and global warming legislation.
Do I wish there were more change? Yes.
And I know better than to wait for Obama to deliver that change like a Christmas present. I have to work for it. WE have to work for it.
[NOTE: Please don’t take my frustration with this event as a dis on Peaceworks. They do great work that I really support. That’s why I go to their fundraisers, give money, and eagerly work with them on projects.]