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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Stephen Jones: Barack Obama and Lessons Lost

This is a post by contributing writer, Stephen Jones, of Las Cruces.

On January 3, 2008 candidate Barack Obama surprised the chattering class with his easy victory in the snowbound caucus state of Iowa. Obama had just defeated the biggest name in Democratic politics, his principal rival Hillary Clinton, who finished a weak third. In the run-up to that election, candidate Obama had accused his rival of caving in to the Washington establishment and placing expediency ahead of principal. His would be a different administration, he said, an open one, one that embraced bold change from the way things were usually done in the nation’s capital.

Americans responded to the challenge of bold change offered by candidate Obama and overwhelmingly elected him President. They believed they had sent a strong progressive leader to Washington. What they got, unfortunately, was a lot of the same. Obama quickly adopted the Bush policies on war, on executive power, on civil rights and civil liberties, on LGBT rights, on government secrecy, on torture and on women’s reproductive rights, to name just a few.

He put his administration's full authority behind bailing out the banks at the expense of the consumer and taxpayer, and he cut inside deals with the insurance lobby on health care. He left his own party leadership and base of supporters out to dry, fighting for cost-containment measures like the public option in the health reform bill, a provision he and his administration had secretly dropped even as his base and progressives in the House, including the Speaker, were staking their careers on the fight for it. Confronted with the dichotomy of the public and the private Obama administration, the Administration turned against their own supporters.

Administration spokesperson Robert Gibbs denounced the “professional left,” and demoralized Democrats by seemingly welcoming a Republican takeover of the Congress. Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, simply called rank-and-file Democrats and progressives in the House “retarded.” On one issue after another, the Administration caved in to right-wing media personalities and the GOP, and abandoned its once stated principles.

60 Minutes Interview
After this month’s election we got more of the same. “Republicans were able to paint my governing philosophy as a classic, traditional, big government liberal. And that’s not something that the American people want. I mean, you know, particularly independents in this country,” Obama told 60 Minutes on Sunday. “My hope is that we may be in a position now where the two sides meet and agree on some things that need to be changed.”

Rather than outlining a post-midterm program for change, President Obama signaled his willingness to take his marching orders from the opposition. “I think that it is entirely legitimate that in the banking sector, it’s very important for us to write these rules in collaboration with interested parties so that they can start knowin’ how things are gonna work. When it comes to healthcare, we need to be consulting with the insurance industry to make sure they know how things are gonna work,” he said.

Rather than praising the Democratic leadership in the House that sacrificed their positions to fight for the bold change he once promised, including the key leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, President Obama found his new principled hero in the Senate. “There are some sincere Republicans in the Senate like Tom Coburn, Oklahoma, who is about as conservative as they come, but a real friend of mine and somebody who has always had the courage of his convictions and not, you know, bringing pork projects back to Oklahoma. And it may be that that’s an example of where, on a bipartisan basis, we can work together to change practices in Washington that generate a lot of the distrust of government,” Obama said.

Background: Nothing New for Obama
This failure to learn basic fundamental lessons is nothing new for Barack Obama, and a flaw in his political makeup that long predates his failure to grasp the lessons of his own victory in Iowa. As a young community organizer he arrived in Chicago in the winter of 1987 and was quickly swept up in the re-election campaign of then Mayor Harold Washington, a progressive insurgent, and that city’s first African-American mayor. In that election, Washington surged to victory against former Mayor Jane Byrne, whom he defeated in the Democratic Primary, and then against his arch-rival Edward "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak, the former Cook County Democratic Party Chairman, who had switched to the Republican Party to challenge Washington.

Another familiar face in that 1987 campaign was David Axelrod, a former Chicago Tribune reporter who had gained traction in a new career steering several Democratic candidates to statewide office. Because of his close associations with the press, Washington had signed on Axelrod, but quickly dismissed the new consultant, and ignored his advice to moderate his core principals and to placate the Mayor’s opposition.

It had been a stiff ride for Harold Washington, and victory in 1987 was never assured. In 1983, Harold Washington toppled incumbent Byrne in a bruising three-way primary, but garnered only 38% of the vote. General elections are usually minor formalities in Chicago, but in 1983 Regular Organization Democrats then rallied against the reformer, and the Democratic nominee Harold Washington, and joined forces behind Republican Bernard Epton, whose campaign slogan took on the borderline racist tone of ‘Vote Epton: Before it’s too Late!’ Regular Democrats and Republicans distributed campaign buttons that featured a watermelon slice with a circle and line through it. Even Bernie Epton’s children were horrified, and they publicly endorsed Harold Washington against their father. Washington won, barely.

For the next four years Harold Washington fought his opposition on an unyielding progressive platform of change, government reform and community empowerment. The weekly City Council meetings became a free-for-all of fist pounding, overheated rhetoric, and hurled insults, epithets and wadded-up missiles of paper. Howling City Council opponents stood on desktops and tried to shout the Mayor down. Leading the charge against his administration were Alderman Edward Vrdolyak, the Democratic Party Chair, and Finance Committee Chair Edward M. Burke. The national press dubbed Chicago “Beirut by the Lake.” After four years of refusing to give in to evil, Harold Washington won, and he won handily. Chicago voters rewarded principle and re-elected him along with a big City Council majority to support him.

Slaying vs. Siding With the Enemy
And that is the difference. Harold Washington knew he had to slay the “Eddies,” but Barack Obama praises them, while, at the same time, showing his own base of support the back of his hand. We should have guessed this about Barack Obama from the start, not only from the presence of David Axelrod, but from a well-known photograph of a younger Barack Obama as a community organizer on the southeast side of Chicago that was frequently used in the 2008 campaign television commercials and campaign literature. That photograph shows a smiling Obama seated at a table in a mill-workers hall. Behind him in the original photograph, hanging on the wall behind Obama, is portrait of Chicago’s reform mayor, Harold Washington. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Washington’s portrait was Photoshopped out of the Obama picture.

Fortunately for Chicago and for the emerging political career of Barack Obama, nothing in Chicago was ever the same in that city. The once-balkanized community embraced, belatedly, the idea of diversity and government reform. The Chicago press that once savaged Mayor Washington’s recalcitrance on a daily basis called him, in retrospect, “a giant.” Barack Obama was one of the chief beneficiaries of that fight. He went on to symbolize the new Chicago; the kinder, gentler, forward-looking Chicago in which anyone could find a place at the table if they tried hard enough. Even State Senator Barack Obama, the newcomer from Hawaii with the funny name, found a place at the table in the new Chicago.

The Courage of One's Convictions
Unfortunately, this is not the lesson that Obama learned in 1987, and he failed to learn it again in 2008. Not from his victory in Iowa, nor his eventual triumph nationally in November. The lesson is simple. Voters will stick by you if they think you stand for something. They will back you if they think you have the courage of your convictions, if they think you really mean it. Let’s hope that in the next two years President Obama reflects on the past and charts a better course, for himself and for all of the rest of us.

Before it’s too late.

To read more posts by Stephen Jones, visit our archive.

November 9, 2010 at 12:03 PM in 2010 General Election, By Stephen Jones, Contributing Writer, History, Obama Administration, Progressivism | Permalink


Thanks for the history replete with the telling details.. ( photoshop !!). Maybe he will stand for what we voted for, if we keep reminding him what that is !
If we don't do that, he will go his own way. It's our determination that matters; unfortunately we only seem to posses determination during Presidential elections.

Posted by: Anita Walsh | Nov 9, 2010 12:27:11 PM

I think there are questions related to how Dick Armey and the Koch brothers were so successful in creating an astroturf movement.

We actually face a prospect that really crazy people could become a majority among the voters, should conditions in the world create more panic.

Many people don't seem to get the true implications for this, but there has been a consistent drive to take over the media on the part of right wing oriented financiers for about the past 40 years, with an amazing orchestration.

It is easy for special interests to figure out common interests- they have only one to figure out. Millions invested in think tanks, lobbying groups, the careers of pundits, and buying up or influencing media means billions and even trillions in profit over the years.

When you talk to people out in the suburbs, it becomes obvious that all this effort has been paying off.

There is very little of no progressive infrastructure for developing a big picture sense of how the world works and a vision that the swing voter can feel is compelling enough to support.

The president is pretty much alone up there on a tight wire, without a net.

For the past 40 years or more, there has not been much of a chance to learn how to create a progressive infrastructure that looks forward and has a compelling strategy, because most of the time the problem has been to protest the latest messed up thing that Republicans have done.

The real problem is to develop a paradigm for the entire progressive community nationally, from the grassroots to the upper floors, that really can move the President forward like the wave under a surfboard.

If Obama stays in office for two terms there might be a chance to begin to develop the wave.

The problem is not merely a political one. America and the world need progressive solutions to problems that are just huge. The longer they are ignored and put off, especially under Republican governance, the worse they will get.

Posted by: Stuart Heady | Nov 9, 2010 12:42:37 PM

"I think there are questions related to how Dick Armey and the Koch brothers were so successful in creating an astroturf movement."

Yes, Mr Heady, the 30 year astroturf experiment did have something to do with this, but it would never have been successful without Obama's refusal to fight. That's the point of Steve's article and unless (as it seems unlikely thus far) Obama stops acting like a gutless tool, he won't get a second term.

My name is Paul Waterhouse and I worked in the same office with with Steve during those years. All of us who waged that important battle know two very important facts: Harold Washington would never have chosen quislings to be his key staffers and cabinet members and; he would have carried the battle straight to his enemies, never giving an inch until he won.

We need Obama to show that resolve, but I'm not sure that he will.

Posted by: thelonius | Nov 9, 2010 2:33:25 PM

Thearticle is too, too long. And the writer is probably a far left type. Folks need to understand the no one politican can please those who inhabit the extremes of the left ot the right. That 5% on either end of the political spectrum will never be happy.

Posted by: Preciliano Martin | Nov 9, 2010 5:58:21 PM

Preciliano It may be too long for you to make sense out of so go watch some old ads about Obama and you'll feel fine. Expecting Obama to support what he was elected to do isn't being in the extremes. Where did you get that silly idea?

Posted by: John | Nov 9, 2010 9:17:07 PM

I'll be watching closely on two upcoming issues, the Bush tax cuts and the deficit commission. Obama should veto a tax bill that contains the tax cuts for the top 2% richest Americans. And he should come down squarely on the side of working people in terms of deficit reduction.

I am dismayed that Obama and Congress did nothing on immigration reform, union card check and DADT. The Democrats in Congress think they did a great job, saving the banksters, and passing a health care bill that was mostly written by the insurance companies. They don't understand that the progressive community has really lost faith in the ability of Democrats to deliver.

Posted by: Jim Hannan | Nov 10, 2010 9:34:04 AM