How Do We Seize The Obama Moment?

Robert Borosage

When Sen. Barack Obama receives the Democratic presidential nomination before 75,000 people in Denver’s Mile High Stadium on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, new possibilities will be born.

Obama may not be a “movement” progressive in the way that Reagan was a “movement” conservative, and he may have disappointed activists with his recent compromises, but make no mistake: His election will open a new era of reform, the scope of which will depend—as Obama often says—on independent progressive mobilization to keep the pressure on and overcome entrenched interests.

Keys to seizing the moment

  • Prepare to get allies into strategic positions in an Obama administration
  • Mobilize the peace movement to press for Iraq withdrawal
  • Continue independent mobilization on other key issues
  • Monitor the opposition aggressively
  • Challenge obstacles to reform in both political parties
  • Embrace bold, smart ideas that expand the limits of the policy debate

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» Read the full article in The Nation.

While focusing on what is certain to be a difficult campaign, progressives should start thinking now about a strategy for an Obama presidency.

The inside-outside strategy

For Obama to achieve his core promises, he will have to push significant reforms early. Periods of significant change in American politics are rare, but they feature spasms of furious activity: Roosevelt’s first 100 days, Johnson’s push in 1964-65, Reagan’s reaction in 1981-82. Inevitably, these spasms don’t last long before reaction sets in. So it is vital to move rapidly and boldly and across many areas to have any chance at success.

Progressives should be pursuing an inside-outside strategy. For example, during the transition, we should push to place allies in strategic positions, particularly in the areas of economic policy and national security. The AFL-CIO and other groups are preparing lists of potential candidates. These inside efforts should be complemented by watchdog monitoring and reporting on potential nominees. No free pass should be given to those who drove the financial and trade policies that led to the current economic debacles or supported the invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign policy fiasco in recent history.

Obama’s first decision—to be made, no doubt, during the transition—will be the most telling. He has pledged that he will instruct the Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare a sensible plan for ending the Iraq occupation. Already, Democratic security advisers who initially supported the war are calling for “conditional engagement,” arguing that the United States can’t afford simply to set a timetable to get out. Thus it is vital that the peace movement organize aggressively during the campaign, and mobilize independently and visibly immediately after the election. The Obama White House must have no doubt about the firestorm in Congress, in the streets and within the Democratic Party that would be caused by a retreat from this pledge.

If the Iraq promise is kept, progressives will sensibly work to help define Obama’s agenda from the inside and support key parts from the outside.

He will lay out a major initiative on jobs and energy. He has said that he’ll try to push through health care reform quickly—although that is likely to trigger trench warfare in Congress (and progressives will have to overcome deep internal divisions to ensure that fundamental reform succeeds). Obama will reverse many of the reactionary Bush executive orders, from the global gag rule to secrecy excesses stemming from the “war on terror.” His first budget decisions most likely will have to deal directly with a broader stimulus plan to get the economy going. He has pledged to support passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, enabling workers to organize unions without employer harassment.

Overcoming obstacles

But Obama will encounter formidable obstacles. He’ll face a business lobby girded for battle. Corporations have already begun moving more of their money to Democratic incumbents and are snapping up former Democratic legislators and staffers for their lobbies. They will do everything they can to stall health care and drug-pricing reform, empowerment of workers and re-regulation of Wall Street. Moreover, while Democrats are likely to enjoy larger majorities in both houses, their caucuses are likely to be less progressive as they pick up seats in very conservative, formerly Republican districts.

Progressives will enjoy their greatest strength mobilizing independently to support Obama’s promises. We can organize constituent pressure on politicians who are blocking the way, something even a president with Obama’s activist network would be loath to do. We can expose the lobbies and interests and backstage maneuvers designed to limit reforms. Now that newspapers increasingly lack the resources for investigation, progressive media, online and off, and the independent progressive media infrastructure—from The Nation to Media Matters to Brave New Films to The Huffington Post—must assume a greater role in monitoring the opposition, even as we mobilize activists in targeted districts across the country.

In doing this, we can help give backbone to the Obama agenda, even as we supply muscle and energy to help pass it. The best way to achieve this is to generate large-scale independent-issue campaigns. A clear example is the Health Care for America Now Coalition, which is ready to take on the insurance companies and support the White House’s commitment to universal health care.

Acting in support of Obama will require challenging legislators in both parties who stand in the way, a task progressives should undertake aggressively. Democrats should be on notice from their own constituents that they will be expected to help move reform, not stand in its way.

Expanding the limits of the debate

The great challenge for progressives is whether the energy and idealism unleashed by the Obama candidacy—and the collapse of conservatism—can expand the limits of the current debate. McCain promises merely more of the same bankrupt policies, but Obama’s reform agenda is itself limited by a very constricted establishment consensus that is an obstacle to real change.

This corrosive consensus reflects the entrenched power of the established order. It is enforced by aggressive lobbies—the military-industrial complex, Wall Street, corporate interests—-and rationalized by well-upholstered house scholars. The establishment’s strength is its ability to simply exclude alternatives from serious consideration.

An Obama administration may well realize that the dire condition of the country demands a far bolder agenda than what is now on the table. Progressives should recognize that an Obama administration would have no alternative but to be one of constant experimentation. We should embrace the best of the public-policy proposals that scholars are developing in our universities and think tanks. These ideas challenge limited assumptions about government and call for everything from dismantling our empire of military bases to curbing the imperial presidency, from passing progressive tax reforms to strengthening the public commons. Again, independent campaigning—particularly regarding concerns not high on the national agenda—will help lift issues into the mainstream.

As a former community organizer, Obama has taught that “real change comes from the bottom up.” It comes about by “imagining and then fighting for and then working for—struggling for—what did not seem possible before.” As president, he will face conflicting pressures, and undoubtedly he will carefully pick his fights. The movement that he has called into being will have little choice but to embrace his charge and mobilize across the country to achieve what “did not seem possible before.”


This is excerpted from “Progressives in the Obama Moment,” in the September 1 issue of The Nation, co-authored with The Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel.

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