We have the power
Today is the six-month anniversary of Barack Obama’s inauguration, and it’s a good time to reflect on the President and our relationship to him.
For the past six months–or, actually, longer–I have watched a divide growing in the left-wing community, a division as predictable as it is disheartening. Even before Barack Obama was inaugurated, there were those who were quick to call him a traitor to progressive principles when he appointed conservatives and Democratic party establishment types rather than progressives to his Cabinet and associated positions. As the list of disappointing decisions grows–upholding DADT, refusing to prosecute Bush and his cronies for violations of the Constitution and for committing war crimes, continuing to subject detainees at Guantanamo Bay to military tribunals rather than giving them legal trials, supporting DOMA, reinstating mountaintop mining–I have heard numerous people say that Obama lied to us, that he is no different than Bush, and even that he was a Manchurian candidate.
On the other side, there are the Obama apologists. Much like defenders of George Lucas’ last three movies, these people look for, and often invent, reasons why every bad decision the President makes is actually a good decision. Every decision that looks bad to us must actually be a clever chess move Obama is making towards our common progressive goals. Since he has access to so much more information than we do, we should fold our hands and take him on faith. They tend to react with hostility to any real criticism of the President.
It’s time for us to look in the mirror, and see what this fight is actually about. It’s about our passionate hope for the possibility of just government, and our terror that that is impossible. Every time we send a man (usually it’s a man) into this fight with the establishment, we look to him to prove that real change is possible and that we do have power to make things better. And–this is the key–he’s supposed to prove all that by doing it for us. He is supposed to be able to inhabit the corrupt and imbalanced system that has created so many of the injustices we fight, at its center, and remain just as true to his beliefs, and honest and open in their expression, as we are. Moreover, he is supposed to redress these imbalances and stop the injustices. Isn’t that what we hired him for?
Well, yes. And it is essential that we hold this man, and all the others we elect, accountable. It is also essential for each of us to have the right to criticize the President. After eight years of George Bush, we have all had enough of bowing and scraping and loyalty oaths, enough of an America in which, as Ari Fleischer once famously said, “Americans should be careful what they say.”
But it is also essential that we acknowledge that we hired this man to fulfill an impossible role. We have the myth that one lone hero will be able to beat a corrupt power structure, that his dedication to his ideals, his moral purity, in fact, will protect him as he enters Hell, and, if he is good enough, he will resist temptation, defeat the powers of darkness, and deliver us all from bondage. If he compromises, or weakens, or fails to right the wrongs we see, then clearly, he must not be morally good enough. He must not be the right one. Disappointed and angry, we go back to searching for someone else to send through this intricate and savage bureaucratic gauntlet. Or maybe we give up on change altogether and snipe from the sidelines at those who are still foolish enough to keep trying.
When I went to the house party that engendered Carrots and Sticks, I chose it, not because it was close to my house–there were several closer–but because Jeremy’s ad for his party spoke to me:
Talking Carrots and Sticks–Our Role in Enacting a Change Agenda
“As Obama supporters, we now face the tough dual challenge of getting his back when necessary and holding his feet to the fire when necessary. How do we do this? Where does the MyBO community fit into the picture?”
This ad showed me that somebody had had the simple, practical, and perhaps revolutionary idea of criticizing Barack Obama without abandoning him. Without demonizing him. In Jeremy’s mind, criticizing Obama and supporting him were not mutually exclusive. After six months of watching Obama’s first administration play out, I’d like to add my own idea to Jeremy’s: when Obama fails us is when he most needs us. Should we criticize the President when he weakens on a principle or fails to deliver on a promise? Hell yes. We shouldn’t accept wavering and inaction. But neither should we give up on him, spreading messages of despair. After we criticize him, we should pour even more energy and effort into organizing ourselves into a more effective, more widespread, and more powerful movement. That is supporting the President. It is honest, loyal, and most importantly, practical support of an idealistic mission.
Howard Dean recently said of Barack Obama, “When somebody comes in from the outside–and even though he spent a few years in the Senate, Barack Obama is really an outsider–when somebody comes in from the outside, there’s always a struggle: Will Washington change the President, or will the President change Washington? Oftentimes, Washington wins. We can’t let that happen. That is our job. It doesn’t have to be that way…People are saying [of my time as DNC chair] ‘Imagine taking on the Washington establishment.’ I didn’t take on the Washington establishment. I had my own power base. It was you….You did that.”
We need to do it again. We need to do it now.