Should Progressives Challenge Obama in the Democratic Primaries?

Subscribers to Tikkun and Members of NSP are mostly united in strong criticism of Obama’s failures–failures due NOT solely to the obstruction of Republicans and his own conservatives in the Democratic Party, but to his failure to articulate and fight for a larger vision. Had he done so, a growing number of liberals and progressives agree, the American people might have responded enthusiastically. They don’t blame him for failing to produce, they blame him for failing to fight for what he claimed to believe in. Last week, for example, with the nation hoping to hear a visionary economic plan, instead heard a wimpy and ineffective one–instead of the New New Deal for a Caring Society that we and many others have been advocating. Of course it would be blocked by the Republicans, but imagine how different people in the US would have felt if they felt that there was someone championing a New New Deal that would among other things spend enough money to put everyone back to work who wants to work!!! Just having that alternative as someting to fight for would have electrified the country and finally defined Obama in a winnable way.

The latest wishy-washy-ness came at the UN where Obama, who a year ago called for a Palestinian state, now announces he will use the US veto to make sure it doesn’t happen except on conditions acceptable to the most right-wing government Israel has ever had. No Republican or Democrat could have prevented the US from going along with the majority of people of the world in supporting UN membership,just as last December no Republican or Democrat could have prevented Obama from letting the Bush-years’ tax reductions on the rich from expiring, or for that matter, from declairing VICTORY and the ENDING THE WAR ON TERROR once his troops had killed Osama Bin Laden (and he could have coupled that with an announcement of ending the war in Afghanistan and brining all troops and independent contractors home once and for all). Lose the Jewish vote? No way. Most Jews would still prefer Obama to Republicans who would take away their social security and destroy the advances in health care and further destroy our educational system and social support network–Israel would be a major issue for the 20% who already vote Republican and possibly for another 10-15%, but not enough to change the electoral outcome or keep a solid majority of Jews in his camp (most of whom are closer to Tikkun than to the Jewish establishment on most issues).

So, now what? On that Tikkun subscribers and NSP members are very much divided. Many fear the disaster they believe would happen should any of the current Republican candidates become the next President of the U.S.–and therefore feel that they have no alternative but to support Obama.  Others, a very small minority I’ve learned from some of your emails, support the very unlikely to win the nomination candidate (and principled libertarian and hence against our military adventures for sustaining the US Empire) Republican Ron Paul, arguing that he, unlike Obama and unlike any other Republican, he would end the wars and dismantle much of our military spending, and that differentiates him from all the rest who will likely continue the wars and do as much damage as he would do to destroying the social support network as the spineless Dems and anti-government Repubs are going to do anyway (or that’s what they claim).  Still others support the idea of a progressive slate of candidates ( a slate, so that no one person is seen as ego-tripping or looking for power, since the point of the challenge is to raise issues that would otherwise not be heard if it boils down to questions of ‘is this particular person the right one?’) challenging Obama in the primaries while supporting him in the general elections.  I’m enclosing the letter from the latter group so that you can see if their reasoning appeals to you. I signed it along with many, many others, and on condition that it be made clear that organizations listed were for identification purposes only and did not reflect an organizational support for this letter (and that is true of all the other signatories and the organizations listed). Tikkun can comment on  the issues in the campaigns ahead and we can provide space for those whose voices get least attention in the media, as we’ve done for the past twenty-five years.


September 17, 2011

Dear Colleague,

We write to you in light of recent deteriorating events in Washington, D.C. Misguided negotiations by the Obama Administration over increasing the debt ceiling willingly put our nation’s vital social services on the chopping block while Bush-era tax cuts remain untouched. Clearly the situation has reached crisis proportions. In response, an innovative plan has been announced to reintroduce a progressive agenda back into the political discussion during the 2012 election season.

Consider for a moment two very different scenarios for the 2012 Democratic presidential primaries.

The First scenario, President Obama advances without contest to a unanimous nomination. There is no recognizable Democratic challenger, no meaningful debate on key progressive issues or past broken promises, just a seamless, self-contained operation on its way to raising one billion dollars in campaign funds.

This scenario is what most observers expect. Mr. Obama will face neither opposition nor debate. He will have no need to clarify or defend his own polices or address the promises, kept and unkept, of his 2008 campaign. The president will not have to explain to his supporters why he directly escalated the war in Afghanistan and broadened America’s covert war in Pakistan, why he chose to engage in a military intervention in Libya, or why he has maintained the Bush Administration’s national security apparatus that allows for the suspension and abuse of constitutionally protected civil liberties–dismissing Congress all the way.

In an uncontested Democratic primary, President Obama will never have to justify his decision to bail out Wall Street’s most profitable firms while failing to push for effective prosecution of the criminal behavior that triggered the recession, or his failure to push for real financial reform. He will not have to defend his decision to extend the Bush era tax cuts nor justify his acquiescence to Republican extortion during the debt ceiling negotiations. He will not have to answer questions on how his Administration completely failed to protect homeowner’s losing their homes to predatory banks, or even mention the word “poverty,” as he failed to do in his most recent State of the Union Address, even as more and more Americas sink into financial despair.

He will never be challenged to fulfill his pledge to actively pursue a Labor-supported card check, or his promise to increase the federal minimum wage or why he took single payer off the table after he said he believes in it. The American labor movement, facing an unprecedented onslaught by the Right will not have the opportunity to voice its concerns and rally around a supportive candidate.

The president will not be pressed to answer how he spent four years in office without addressing the ongoing destabilization of our climate or advocating a coherent and ecologically sound energy policy including defending his position on nuclear power and so called clean coal. Nor will he discuss regulatory agency deficiencies in enforcing corporate law and order in an era marked by a corporate crime wave having devastating economic consequences on workers and taxpayers and their savings and pensions. There will be no opportunity for the Hispanic and other relevant communities to speak out on immigration reform even as the Republicans continue to use it as a weapon of political demagoguery.

Add your own concerns, disappointments, and frustrated hopes to this list of what will surely be left off the table during an express-lane primary. The valid disagreements within the Democratic Party, let alone the goals of progressives, will be completely overlooked. The media will gleefully cover the media circus that is sure to be the Republican primaries, magnifying every minor gaffe and carefully cataloguing every iteration and argument of the radical right. The cameras will cover the Democratic side only for orchestrated events, the whiff of scandal, and to offer commentary on how the campaign is positioning itself for the general election.

The summation of this process will be a tediously scripted National Convention, deprived of robust exchange and well-wrought policy. And here the danger is clear: not only will progressive principles past and present be betrayed but large sections of voters will feel bored with and alienated from the democratic candidate. This would not serve the president’s campaign, our goals, or the nation’s needs.

Thankfully, there is another option. This second scenario would allow for robust and exciting discussion and debate during the primary season while posing little risk to the president other than to encourage him take more progressive stands. It would also accomplish the critical task of energizing the Progressive base to turn out on Election Day.

Imagine: A slate of six candidates announces its decision to run in the Democratic primaries. Each of the candidates is recognizable, articulate, and a person of acknowledged achievement. These contenders would each represent a field in which Obama has never clearly staked a progressive claim or where he has drifted toward the corporatist right. These fields would include: labor, poverty, military and foreign policy, health insurance and care, the environment, financial regulation, civil and political rights/empowerment, and consumer protection.

Without primary challengers, President Obama will never have to seriously articulate and defend his beliefs to his own party. Given the dangers our nation faces, that option is unacceptable. The slate is the best method for challenging the president for a number of reasons:

-The slate can indicate that its intention is not to defeat the president (a credible assertion given their number of voting columns) but to rigorously debate his policy stands.

-The slate will collectively give voice to the fundamental principles and agendas that represent the soul of the Democratic Party, which has increasingly been deeply tarnished by corporate influence.

-The slate will force Mr. Obama to pay attention to many more issues affecting many more Americans. He will be compelled to develop powerful, organic, and fresh language as opposed to stale poll-driven “themes.”

-The slate will exercise a pull on Obama toward his liberal/progressive base (in the face of the countervailing pressure from “centrists” and corporatists) and leave that base with a feeling of positive empowerment.

-The slate will excite the Democratic Party faithful and essential small-scale donors, who (despite the assertions of cable punditry) are essentially liberal and progressive.

- A slate that is serious, experienced, and well-versed in policy will display a sobering contrast with the alarmingly weak, hysterical, and untested field taking shape on the right.

-The slate will command more media attention for the Democratic primaries and the positive progressive discussions within the party as opposed to what will certainly be an increasingly extremist display on the right.

-The slate makes it more difficult for party professionals to induce challengers to drop out of the race and more difficult for Mr. Obama to refuse or sidestep debates in early primaries.

The slate, if announced, will receive free legal advice and adequate contributions for all prudent expenses in moving about the country. The paperwork is far simpler than what confronts ballot-access- blocked third party and independent candidates. For the slate will be composed of registered Democrats campaigning inside the Party Primaries.

This opportunity to revive and restore the progressive infrastructure of the Democratic Party must not be missed. A slate of Democratic candidates challenging the president’s substance and record is an historic opportunity. Certainly, President Obama will not be pleased to face a list of primary challengers, but the comfort of the incumbent is far less important than the vitality and strength of his party’s Progressive ideas and ideals. President Obama should emerge from the primary a stronger candidate as a result.

This letter is sent to several dozen accomplished persons known to identify with the Democratic Party voting line for a variety of reasons. We ask that you consider several requests. First, would you consider being a slate candidate after due reflection beyond what may be an immediate no? History has illustrated greater discomforts, material sacrifices and other profiles of courage in our country’s past for a perceived major common good.

Second, if you are not interested in joining as a candidate, would you add your name as an official endorsee of the slate proposal. All endorsements are made as individuals and organizational or institutional affiliations are for identification purposes only. Your endorsement will be a vital signal of support and will help in compiling the strongest slate of candidates possible when we send out the letter to the candidate list, yet to be finalized.

Third, can you suggest accomplished people to contact who may be interested in joining the slate as a candidate in one of the following fields: labor, poverty, military and foreign policy, health insurance and care, the environment, financial regulation, civil and political rights/empowerment, and consumer protection. This can be yourself if you feel it would be appropriate.

Candidates and endorsements will be accepted on a rolling basis. All submissions or additional questions and comments can be directed to Colin O’Neil or 703-599-3474. We appreciate your response.

Thank you.

Partial List of Endorsees

All endorsements are in alphabetical order are made as individuals, organizational/institutional affiliations are for identification purposes only.

Norman Birnbaum

Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University Law Center

Dr. Brent Blackwelder

President Emeritus of Friends of the Earth

Charles Cray Peter Coyote

Actor, Author and Director

Charles Derber

Professor, Boston College

Ronnie Dugger

Founder, Alliance for Democracy

James Abourezk

Former U.S. Senator, South Dakota

Gar Alperovitz

Professor University of Maryland

Co-Founder Democracy Collaborative

Ellen H. Brown

Lawyer and Author of Web of Debt

Edgar Stuart Cahn

Professor of Law, University of the District of Columbia

Co-founder Legal Services for the Poor

Pat Choate

1996 Reform Party Vice President Candidate

Director of the Center for Corporate Policy

Ronnie Cummins

Executive Director, Organic Consumers Association

John Fullerton

President, Capital Institute

Rebecca and James Goodman

Northwood Farm

Randy Hayes

Director, Foundation Earth Rainforest Action Network Founder

Chris Hedges

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist of the New York Times and Author

Hazel Henderson,

Author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy President, Ethical Markets Media, LLC.

Alan F. Kay

Author of Spot the Spin and Locating Consensus for Democracy Harry Kelber

The Labor Educator

Andrew Kimbrell

Executive Director, Center for Food Safety & International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA)

Jonathan Kozol

Educator, Author of Savage Inequalities Lewis Lapham

Former Editor, Harper’s Magazine

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Editor, Tikkun Magazine Chair, Network of Spiritual Progressives

Jean Houston

Psychologist, Anthropologist and Author of The Possible Human and The Possible Society

Nicholas Johnson

Former Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission

Former Administrator, U.S. Maritime Administration

Leland Lehrman

Partner, Fund Balance

Dr. Richard Lippin, MD

Physician Forecaster, Board Certified in Preventive Medicine and Advocate for both Individual and

Institutional Prevention

Robert D. Manning

Founder and CEO, Responsible Debt Relief Institute

Author of Credit Card Nation

Dr. Samuel Metz, MD

Mad As Hell Doctors, founding member

Physicians for a National Health Program, member of Portland chapter

Carol Miller

Community Activist, New Mexico

E. Ethelbert Miller

Board Chair Institute for Policy Studies

Ralph Nader

Citizen Advocate

Michael Parenti


John Passacantando

Former Executive Director, Greenpeace USA

Vijay Prashad

Author and Professor, Trinity College

Marcus Raskin

Author of The Common Good and former White House Advisor Andy Shallal

“Democracy’s Restauranteur” and Owner of Bus Boys & Poets

Michelle Shocked


Gore Vidal

Erich Pica

President of Friends of the Earth

Nomi Prins

Author and former Managing Director at Goldman Sachs

David Swanson

Author, War is a Lie

Chris Townsend

Political Action Director, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE)

Author and Political Activist

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Chair, The Shalom Center

Cornel West

Professor and Author of Race Matters

National Coordinator, Physicians for a National Health Program

Harvey Wasserman

Author of Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth

Quentin D. Young MD

tags: US Politics   
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6 Responses to Should Progressives Challenge Obama in the Democratic Primaries?

  1. Kevin Lynn September 22, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Please watch the attached video. On July 30th, the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party voted to begin a search for a Progressive challenger to Obama.

  2. Suzanne Seed September 22, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    OhMyGod, Rabbi! To even consider a challenge to Obama’s candidacy! Do you want to be the RALPH NADER (who gave us BushW!) of our next election? I can’t think of anything else that would make me, a long-time fan, write you off for good more quickly. Obama is doing what he can in an impossibly vicious climate…criticize and encourage — but equally, please — and please don’t suggest a challenge to his candidacy…The problem is with our zeitgeist, which still rewards militancy and gonzo swaggering, and therefore Armageddon-mongering empire-based versions of our Faiths, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim alike…support those who counter these mad dogs, please, and call these faux versions of our Faiths for their hi-jacking of God…That is a true power base: truth & prophecy…calling out the extremes of our own Faiths, each of them, for what they are: wolves in religious clothing….

  3. rpgill September 24, 2011 at 7:20 am

    An interesting idea. Certainly, Mr. Obama owes us an explanation for his actions, and a defense of his policies. However, Mr. Obama has proven time and time again that his words mean nothing. He will say what he thinks we want to hear, then do what he believes is in his best political interests. We should expect nothing else. As for me, I willnot support Mr. Obama for re-election and realize that none of the likey Republican candidates deserves my support either. Let’s pray for something better than the choices we have before us.

  4. Jim Young September 24, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    If we support and condone what President Obama has done, as well as what he has failed to stand against, we will be part of it.
    The spirit of the times is indeed perilous. This is no excuse for not making a bold effort to stand for what is right. President Obama has not done this.
    He should be primaried, regardless of the consequences. It’s the right thing to do.

  5. Rick October 13, 2011 at 3:36 am

    I totally disagree with what Suzanne Seed wrote above. This constant knee-jerk playing of the Ralph-Nader-brought-in-Bush card is one of the most crucial factors keeping our country from moving forward and is quite damaging to the Democratic party and the progressive vision. The endless and politically-correct recitation of the mantra of “Obama is doing what he can in an impossibly vicious climate” is simply false. Obama is NOT doing what he intelligently could in this “climate”; in fact his centrist policies are actively ENABLING and STRENGTHENING this right-wing environment.

    Suzanne wrote that the problem is with our zeitgeist and with politicians who promote “empire-based versions of our Faiths”. She suggests that we need to support those such as Obama who allegedly could act to counter these politicians. Unfortunately, things don’t work this way, and I think this is the crucial error made by those who blindly support Obama. Nature and politics both abhor a vacuum. When there is little vision, when there is little acting out of principle, when there is mostly cowardly centrism and limited willingness to fight on the left, the right wing is strengthened. Tikkun’s psychological insights have helped us to understand that citizens need to see someone with VISION and is willing to fight hard for them as individuals. When they don’t see that on the left they will always choose someone on the right who does have a vision (no matter how repulsive it may be to them) and is willing to fight (no matter how ludicrous that fighting may be). No matter the “external environment”, presidents above all else can promote a vision. Obama’s refusal to vigorously promote a new alternative vision, a spiritual-progressive vision, is a major factor in why we have this zeitgeist that Suzanne writes about.

    There is an image, very popular in many circles, that Obama’s valiant centrism pitted against a vicious climate not of his making is the only thing we have to ward off the right-wing Armageddon. This is entirely incorrect. The spiritual and emotional vacuum that Obama’s centrism has created in the American political scene is one of the most important factors EXACERBATING and STRENGTHENING the right wing and is actually helping to bring on the right-wing Armageddon.

    We can see this dynamic playing out in our own individual emotional lives. We are often very aware of instances where we inadvertently or unconsciously create our own reality, in which with our own ill-considered behavior we inadvertently strengthen an environment that hurts us. This happens in part through the mechanism of “surplus powerlessness” that Rabbi Lerner wrote about some years ago. Our unresolved pain ends up creating more painful situations, even though we often can’t see this mechanism and therefore project it outwards where it then appears to us as “the other”. The notion of Obama “courageously doing the best he can in a vicious external climate” that he is “forced” to work in is an example of this kind of projection. The vicious environment then becomes reified, a “thing” outside us, our surplus powerlessness preventing us from seeing that it is in some large part (though certainly not entirely) of our own creation. Though we think we are fighting against the thing causing us pain, in fact the exact opposite is taking place. We are actually strengthening it, often beneath the awareness of our understanding.

    In Obama’s centrism it is rather easier to see this dynamic playing out. We need to stop it if we are to stop the slide into disaster that Obama’s policies are enabling.

  6. Gene Partlow October 16, 2011 at 2:29 am

    Since he has proven unwilling to follow through with the promises and stances he used
    to stir up a great grass roots response in
    2008, he is very unlikely to improve even if
    one or more Dem challengers do ‘hold his feet’
    to the fire. Any challengers need to thus be
    prepared to go all the way to the White House
    to finally give us what we’ve been yelling for all along. Obama simply can’t. It just isn’t in him.

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