Shortly before the California Democratic primary in 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle invited me to write a short article explaining why I, chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, was supporting Barack Obama. Like most other progressive activists, I understood that a president is limited in what s/he can accomplish in limiting the power of America’s economic and political elites and in restraining the military-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical and health care profiteers, the oil industry’s relentless destruction of the environment, or the selfishness and materialism that had become the hallmark of Wall Street and increasingly the “common sense” that was conveyed by the media and advertising into the consciousness of many Americans.
But what a president can do is to challenge the ideas of the powerful and rally those who have become aware that the current system is not only destructive to the future of the planet, but also to the possibility of constructing lives that have a sense of higher meaning than accumulating money and things, or building families and friendships that are about love and not dominated by the self-interest “what’s in it for me” consciousness of the capitalist marketplace.
President Obama is now traveling the country seeking to rebuild the enthusiasm he generated in 2008, and seems clueless as to why it is not there. And the Democrats who followed his lead seem similarly clueless. They imagine that we, their political base, must have had unreasonable expectations that somehow a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic president could overcome the Republican party of “no” and the powerful institutional constraints built up over many decades. So they try to explain to us why they failed to pass the legislation that we, their political base, would have wanted.
It’s easier for them to believe that their liberal and progressive base is naïve than to acknowledge that we are not alienated for their failure to pass appropriate legislation, but for their failure to fight for such legislation. And our upset with Obama is not that he didn’t accomplish what he couldn’t accomplish, but that he didn’t do the one thing he could do: consistently speak the truth, tell us and the country what was really happening in the corridors of power and what the constraints are that he was facing.
It’s one thing to make compromises after you’ve struggled for something you believe in, another to make the compromises without ever trying. Liberals and progressives had already been deeply disillusioned after the Democratic sweep of Congress in 2006, continued to fund the war in Iraq despite overwhelming popular opposition to that war. So when Obama entered the primaries and spent much of his time distinguishing himself from Sen. Clinton on precisely the grounds that he had opposed the war from the beginning, he gave his base the impression that he would be a leader who would challenge the war makers. Similarly, when he challenged the selfishness and materialism that pervaded Wall Street, we felt we had a candidate who would be willing to speak truth to power.
So what happened? Massive bailouts for Wall Street while almost nothing for the millions of unemployed or those losing their homes to avaricious financial lenders; escalation of the war in Afghanistan and leaving 50,000 troops as “advisors” in Iraq; refusing to consider a “public option” for health care and supporting 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 for health care; repression against immigrants; allowing continued drilling in the oceans for oil even after the Gulf disaster, and substituting the empty promise of “cap and trade” for the tax on carbons that is the only plausible way to reduce carbon emissions; refusal to punish those engaged in torture in the US intelligence community; and the list goes on.
The president has a bully pulpit that could have rallied the American public to an alternative worldview. Reagan did that while facing a hostile Democratic Congress; Roosevelt did that while facing a hostile Republican Congress – and that is what made them the most significant presidents of the 20th century.
Many of us will vote Democratic in November, despite all this. But don’t expect us to be able to rally others when the best we can say is that the Democrats and their national leader are better than the plausible alternatives. That is not a rallying cry likely to produce many votes or move us beyond our deep disappointments. And many others, feeling humiliated at allowing themselves to have opened to the hope Obama elicited, now find themselves either totally uninterested in politics or wishing to strike back at the Democrats for making fools of those who trusted. Obama and the Democrats remain clueless.