Can President Obama Be Changed?

(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

That is the question, or more accurately, can President Obama be persuaded to fully support a progressive approach to policy?  That is the key question in deciding whether criticisms of President Obama in this election season are “helpful” or not.

Despite commentary to the contrary, it is my sense that those who criticize Mr. Obama do not do so out of some demented animus toward the man.  In fact, I submit that the criticism comes out of a respect for the President.  Progressive critics think that he is a man with whom one can disagree sharply and still expect that he will, as is the responsibility of his office, prioritize the will of the public that those criticisms represent and adjust his official actions in accordance.

Much pie has been flung between factions of progressives lately about the correct course of action. Should we try to force Mr. Obama to change his policies now, when he needs something from us?  Or, should we keep our powder dry until after the elections when a grateful re-elected president will reward our silence with a change of course in his administration?

As one who is a frequent critic of the President’s policies, who has taken his share of disapprobation from partisans of the President, I want to seriously ask a question:

When has passivity and failure to stand up for your principles, at key moments when “mandates” are being approved by the public at large, ever been a winning strategy for those principles?


Do partisans of the President really feel that he is such a weak figure and poor politician that he cannot win an election if progressives stand up for their principles and attempt to drive his “mandate” to the left?

It has come to a point where the arguments between progressive factions have become cartoonish, hyperbolic and sadly, frankly, comic:

obama explained

Divide et Impera

There’s been a lot of loose talk about the reasons for and purpose of criticism with some seeing Republican shills in cubicles hiding behind every criticism of the President’s policies.

Progressive critics of the President’s policies are often called out for introducing “divisive” themes.  Ironically, most of the people who are calling them out are fellow progressives who claim to also have similar, strong criticisms of the same policies. Here’s a comment that is generally representative of many similar ones that I have received:

Oh, joe. (0+ / 0-)

How sad is this?  You and I reduced to fighting each other, when really, we probably agree on 95% of political policies.

But—something about this site, as much as I love the community here , that goads us further into our own bubble. This is NOT the result you or I are hoping for.

How sad is this, indeed!

When people who broadly agree on principles are reduced to fighting over whether to stand united for their principles or put their principles aside to support a candidate, who is doing the dividing?  I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.

The bizarre divide between progressives over whether principles or a candidate for office should take first priority is similar to the divide in the general public over policy and candidates.

Most of the public wants the wars to end and the troops to come home.  Most of the public opposes the bailouts for banks, feel that the banks have too much power and wants the banker criminals to be held accountable. Most of the public favors progressive taxation and an increase in taxes on the wealthy.  Most of the public does not want Social Security or Medicare cuts.

Why is it that the public which broadly agrees on these things can’t seem to get action on them from their politicians?  Well, the answer leads to a complex explanation which can be reduced pretty fairly to the simpler construction that the public is politically riven.  The public is torn by wedge issues and a tidal wave of media information and disinformation.

Here’s an example of how that media process works.  The other day Jesselyn Radack posted a great diary that gave details about two books about torture performed during the Bush administration. One book, “Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives,” was written by Jose Rodriguez (CIA rendition/torture supporter who destroyed videotaped evidence of KSM’s waterboarding and so far has gotten away with it).  His book is being flacked on the front page by the Washington Post.  Another book, “The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda,” was written by former FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan (anti-torture, arabic speaking FBI interrogator who is reputed to have performed one of the most successful interrogations of any al-Qaeda operative to date) will be receiving the Ridenhour Book Prize.  So we’ve got two experts on torture, advocating two contradictory positions on torture; one claims that torture is essential to our security, the other says that torture harms our security.  Both experts will be featured in various media advocating their positions.

On this and many other topics, different groups of Americans are now able to operate from diametrically opposed sets of facts, conjured by experts.  These fact sets are then trumpeted by advocacy journalism outlets and leave the public divided and confused.  It doesn’t matter any more on a practical level which set of facts is true.   It all feeds into a condition where the public cannot draw a conclusion and public opinion can be easily divided by pr campaigns.

When the public is sharply divided and cannot agree even on a basic set of facts and national narrative, it elects a sharply divided set of representatives who recreate the national gridlock in office.  These representatives become easy pickings for corporate lobbyists, wealthy individuals and institutions that can help ($) these politicians promote themselves in their districts.  These campaigns then spend (in the aggregate) billions of dollars on media campaigns with highly targeted messages which reinforce the divisive messages already in the system and further bamboozle the public.

When progressives are divided by campaign messages and electoral fever, they are unable to unite and promote their principles either among themselves or to the general public.

When progressives are fragmented and they fail to stand up in solidarity for their principles, it is hardly likely that they will be heard by politicians, much less accommodated.

The Big Club

Often those who push for progressive policy find politicians to be receptive to their ideas, but unwilling to implement their policies.  Many times, as with the civil rights movement, politicians own personal convictions rest solidly with the progressives who appeal to them to make changes.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had the ear of presidents.  He was a frequent visitor and correspondent with them.  It was however, politically inconvenient for these presidents to adjust the policy of the United States to accommodate the righteous demands of Dr. King and a vast number of other civil rights advocates all working toward the implementation of similar ends.  The politicians wanted to wait until it was politically safer to acquiesce to the demands of the civil rights movement.

How did the civil rights movement achieve the remarkable progress that they made, in spite of the resistance of government due to political inconvenience?  Solidarity and tremendously courageous acts of political resistance.

Martin Luther King created a big club:

mlk dream

It should be remembered though, that it wasn’t Martin Luther King Jr., with his charisma, stirring oratory and diplomatic skills that compelled the politicians to put aside their concerns about personal political career risks and implement the governmental support for equality of civil rights.  It was the solidarity and resolve of countless people who have never become famous that forced the changes.

It was “the little people,” average people like you and me, many who never expected to make a big difference, that rose to the occasion and held those public servants’ feet to the fire.  The same sort of people who get messages in their email today, suggesting that if they donate to a politician’s campaign, they will be enrolled in a lottery to meet with that politician for dinner.  Have you recieved an email like this one that I forgot to delete a while ago?:

Dinner with the President

FROM: Julianna Smoot,  

TO: joe shikspack

Thursday, June 16, 2011 12:50 PM


Joe —

I’ve worked for President Obama for almost five years — but I’ve never actually sat down for dinner with him.

That’s why I’m excited about (and maybe a little jealous of) the opportunity you have to join the President for dinner. He’s going to sit down and swap stories over a meal with four supporters, and you could be one of them.

You should really give this a shot. Please donate $5 or more today to be automatically entered for the chance to sit down for dinner with the President:…

Dinner with the President?

This isn’t going to be a formal affair or a banquet for hundreds of guests.

It’s just you, three other supporters, and President Obama, sitting down together for an evening among friends.

It’s not often you get to talk to the President one on one about your hopes for the country and your ideas for this campaign. So I hope you’ll put your name in the running.

Please donate $5 or more today, and you’ll be automatically entered for the chance to claim your seat the table:…

Good luck,


Julianna Smoot

Deputy Campaign Manager

Obama for America

I’ve gotten a bunch of these; I think I even got one from Michelle Obama once or twice.  Do these people not get how deeply offensive this is?

I mean, really!  The President and his staff apparently think that “the little people,” are pretty much interchangeable and it’s really not worth the President’s time to pay much attention to them, but maybe if they all pool their money a few lucky ones can be graced with an audience?  The sort of audience that politicians grant lobbyists all the time?

So does the President think that we have nothing to say worth listening to, or is it just about the money?  After all, access costs money, but has its privileges in this administration.

That clueless disconnect explains why we need our own “Big Club” now.  It explains perfectly why we need solidarity and resolve if we are to get policies that match our principles.  We “little people” are only important to the powers that be in aggregate.  We don’t individually have the power or economic heft to obtain even the attention of the powers that be.  

Regardless of what you think about President Obama’s personal progressive beliefs or intentions, his record has shown time and again that it is politically inconvenient for him to fully support a broadly progressive policy agenda.  Mr. Obama has found it quite politically convenient, in fact to bargain using for chips substantial parts of the treasured progressive legacy, like Social Security and Medicare.

We must form a Big Club again.  We must stand in solidarity for our principles.  We must hold the politicians feet to the fire.  We must make it more politically convenient for them to accommodate us than studiously ignore us.

See, there’s another “Big Club” that has grown like a weed in the intervening years since Dr. King formed his big club.  It’s been a very successful club and it has increasingly dominated our politics for years now.  It’s a club that gets what it wants from politicians; deregulation of the media, deregulation of the financial sector and lately, the kicker, a backdoor deregulation of the election process through the infamous “Citizens United” ruling.  It is becoming harder and harder for politicians to stand against this tidal wave of money and media influence.  If they want to be able to keep their positions, it is enormously politically inconvenient for politicians to fail to curry the favor of this big club.

That’s why it is essential for us to stand in solidarity for our principles.  Our progressive agenda stands no chance of making a difference if we lack solidarity.  Our progressive agenda will be ignored by politicians of all stripes if we do not stand together and hold their feet to the fire.  

In this world of the 24 hour news cycle and the permanent campaign we are fighting an uphill battle against a club that can blast its messages in its media to manipulate the public.  The club can whip up astroturf movements to reinforce their message and poll for results that support their big club’s agenda, thus pushing politicians to conform to “public opinion.”

In this environment, failing to hold a politicians’ feet to the fire is a recipe for allowing them to cave in to the demands of that other, successful big club.

You can call critics “purists” or pony something-or-others, but if you claim to share our principles and you don’t stand with us, you’re going to wind up standing for nothing but the re-election of people who won’t reliably stand up for you.


Skip to comment form

    • on 04/30/2012 at 01:25

    thanks for reading!

    • on 04/30/2012 at 14:39

    and, to me, that’s more important. When he lied about FISA when he was in the Senate and then voted for the bill, I knew then he could not be trusted. Since then he has proven time and time again to be not only untrustworthy but unscrupulous and immoral. My distrust has proven correct.

    I don’t believe that he is naive or stupid. Au contraire, I believe that everything he has done about the economy, national security and the solidification of the unitary executive is exactly what he intended to do. The few bones he threw at the left, such as the much touted Lilly Ledbetter Act and the repeal of DADT, where to appease his obsessed, naive, sycophant supporters. I don’t entertain fools.

    Obama is worse than Bush. He doesn’t deserve to be re-elected.

    • on 04/30/2012 at 20:24

    Should we try to force Mr. Obama to change his policies now, when he needs something from us?  Or, should we keep our powder dry until after the elections when a grateful re-elected president will reward our silence with a change of course in his administration?

    … is, in my view, “no”.

    We should expend all the powder we have, and as much extra as we can beg, borrow or steal, to elect progressives to state legislatures, Congress, and in the rare event that its practicable, the Senate{1}. And as its still primary season, to primary reactionary Democrats were we have the opportunity.

    IMV, we shouldn’t divert one ounce of serious effort from that task to the fight between the crazy wing of the Republican party and the former Rockefeller wing, having been previously purged from the Republican party and now taken up residence as the Hedge Fund wing of the Democratic party.

    Attention to the Presidential race is for downtime, not time devoted to progressive action.



    {1. And local, if you are working for a progressive result for a locality with even year local elections. In this part of Ohio, city council, school board, township and country commissioners are all odd-year election races.}

    • on 04/30/2012 at 21:48

    This piece by Matt at naked capitalism with the video is great but the coup de grâce was this:

    It reminds me of a conversation I had with a black woman after an Occupy Wall Street Alternative Banking Group meeting. She was clearly active in New York City housing politics and knowledgeable about policy generally. I started criticizing Obama’s role in the mortgage settlement. She said:

       I have trouble with members of my community. I think Obama needs not to be President. I think he needs to be impeached. But no one in my community wants to hear that. I tell them it’s like when your mother sees you going out with someone who is no good for you.

           “Why don’t you leave him? What does he do for you?”

           “But Momma, I love him.”

           “He knocked you down the stairs, took your keys, drove your car to Florida, ran up big bills on your credit card, and Lord only knows what else he did when he was hiding from you.”

           “But Momma, I still love him.”

    Her story applies equally well to the oxymoron of the establishment left in America. Obama is not only not their friend, but he abuses them, yet they manage to forgive all and come back for more.

    I work in a hospital that employs many minority workers, I can’t tell you how many times I have had that same conversation. On the other hand, many of these same people have said the problem is that there is no better alternative and don’t know what to do.

    • on 05/01/2012 at 00:58

    … of course. He’s fundamentally conservative in a way that W Bush never was, and would never dream of trying to stay on past the end of his second term.

    When President Obama was elected was the time to start building toward building a progressive change coalition and elect a progressive populist in 2016. Instead the so-called “netroots” were like the stereotypical, “My Doctor says I have ADHD but I don’t think tha… oh, look, a bunny!”

    Even after losing the midterms, constantly distracted by the baubles and ignoring the long game.

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