Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Obama Gap


...the Obama administration is obsessed with the wrong Lincoln. They are obsessed with the Lincoln who they think moved to the right and was trying to create bipartisan consensus with conservatives, whereas we know there’s no Lincoln without Frederick Douglass. There’s no Lincoln without Harriet Beecher Stowe. There’s no Lincoln without Wendell Phillips or Charles Sumner. That was a social movement. Lincoln supported the slave trade when he was in the House. He supported the Fugitive Slave Act. In the first inaugural lecture he gave, he supported the first proposed Thirteenth Amendment, which said there would be slavery forever in America, the unamendable amendment. That was Lincoln. If it were not for the abolitionist movement, the courageous black and white freedom fighters, from John Brown to Douglass, who put pressure on Lincoln, we would have been dealing with a white supremacist Lincoln. Lincoln became great, because a social movement pushed him against slavery in that regard. And Obama is looking to the wrong Lincoln. And if he doesn’t understand the greatness of Lincoln was responding to the social movements of working people and poor people, he’s going to end up with a failed presidency, with a lot of symbolic gestures...
Cornel West

Obama's twenty-month abandonment of the ideals that enthused us in 2008 -- combined with the failure of his Wall Street-oriented economic policies and his capitulation to the military-industrial complex -- has generated more despair than hope, and blaming his base for that is stupid and self-destructive.
Rabbi Michael Lerner

We were in such a hurry to get things done that we forgot to change how things get done in Washington.
Barack Obama, November 3, 2010

On Halloween night 2008, a group of 10 of us from Orange County drove 4 hours to Las Vegas to sleep a few hours and arise early for an Obama rally in front of 15,000 who committed the weekend to canvass the greater Vegas area. Obama was our "hope" after 8 years of Bush policies, carrying us off to war while the middle class vanished. We all desperately wanted "change" from this inspirational leader who promised equality & justice for the disadvantaged and transparency from his own administration. Fast-forward to Tuesday night, November 2, 2010, when my wife and I watched election returns with our good friend who lamented Obama's lack of follow-through with the LGBT community, dragging his feet on Don't Ask Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, in the midst of a rising tide of gay teen suicide. The same abrasive frustration is felt by the Latino community who got zero reform and record deportations of undocumented family members and from millions of middle class homeowners who have gone underwater without a lifevest.

In the run-up to Obama's self-proclaimed "shellacking" on Tuesday night, while many TV and radio pundits (as well as the Obama Administration itself) blamed progressive Democratic political leaders for being "too liberal," two important conversation partners provided rich analysis of the Obama gap--the growing divide between the Obama who campaigned by courageously inspiring millions versus the Obama who has governed under a cloak of bipartisanship and compromise.

Marshall Ganz, who helped devise the grass-roots organizing model for the Obama campaign and is a public policy lecturer at Harvard, wrote a piece that proposes that Obama has abandoned the creative, courageous & hope-filled "transformational" leadership of his campaign--"the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world." Obama, according to Ganz, has replaced it with "transactional" leadership which is "about horse-trading, operating within the routine, and it is practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo." Here's Ganz' concise synopsis:

Obama and his team made three crucial choices that undermined the president's transformational mission. First, he abandoned the bully pulpit of moral argument and public education. Next, he chose to lead with a politics of compromise rather than advocacy. And finally, he chose to demobilize the movement that elected him president. By shifting focus from a public ready to drive change — as in "yes we can" — he shifted the focus to himself and attempted to negotiate change from the inside, as in "yes I can."

Obama became insular and has neglected the very social movements that were so instrumental in energizing his victory in 2008. Now, we sit on the couch in lamentation, wondering if "Barry the Transformational" will return to bring us to the promised land of economic justice, social equality and peace. Of course, as Cornel West has repeatedly reminded us, Obama needs a movement from below to push him to greatness (just as Lincoln did 150 years ago), but perhaps this election will shellack him back on track.

In addition, the ever forthright Rabbi Michael Lerner just recently wrote a piece for Tikkun, anticipating the brutal midterm election. As he flashes back to the campaign of 2007-08, he reminds us that "spiritual progressives" took to Obama becauses of his rhetoric, challenging the military-industrial-complex (in the midst of pointless imperialist invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan), subverting corporations and Wall Street in the midst of the Great Recession and rejeting political correctness while standing up for disadvantaged people of color as well as middle class whites (as he carefully distanced himself from Jeremiah Wright in his speech on race in Philly. So what happened to that Obama? Lerner documents:

First, he appointed Emanuel as his Chief of Staff and surrounded himself with a White House crew that lacked representatives from the social change movements that brought him electoral success (and this remains true even with the departure of Emanuel and Summers).

Then came the sad reversals of direction: He bailed out Wall Street but gave almost nothing to the millions of unemployed or to those losing their homes to avaricious financial lenders.

He escalated the war in Afghanistan and left 50,000 troops as "advisers" in Iraq, publicly justifying his reliance on preemptive military force upon receiving an ill-conceived Nobel Peace Prize.

He refused to push for a public option for health care and instead supported a plan that forces tens of millions of people to buy health insurance without putting any restraints on insurance companies' continuing escalations of the amount we have to pay.

Moreover he agreed to oppose methods to reduce the costs of prescription drugs in return for a promise to slightly reduce the level of drug profits by big pharma.

Indeed, the list of reversals seems unending:
--he pursued repression against illegal immigrants;
--allowed continued drilling in the oceans for oil even after the Gulf of Mexico disaster and substituted the empty promise of "cap and trade" for the tax on carbons that is the only plausible way to reduce carbon emissions;
--refused to punish those in the U.S. intelligence community who engaged in torture;
--invoked a "state secrets" rationale to allow U.S. executive branch leaders to unilaterally assassinate any American citizen they want without redress or due process (the al-Aulaqi case), while giving free rein to private security companies like Blackwater to kill for hire;
--escalated the use of drones that often kill more civilians than suspected terrorists;
--and appointed friends of the worst big agricultural firms to run his Department of Agriculture.
The list goes on.


There's no doubt that the three of us represented a raindrop in the ocean of millions of Americans on Tuesday who feel utterly neglected by our leader. The kind of rich, spiritual analysis that both Ganz and Lerner bring us is so desperately needed to galvanize our parched political souls. They transcend the lame, right-vs-left jabber of the mainstream media, businesses which have much to gain from framing our national political stories in this simplistic, us-vs-them, infotainment paradigm. In order to get off the couch and out of this present mourning, we'll need to listen to these other voices that call us to our better selves.

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