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Rather than dwell on the question of whether we can bring
Obama home, whether he ever was home, etc., I want to
refocus on this question of how to respond to him, particularly
as we start to think about 2012.
what do we now say about 2008? Contrary to those who have
thrown up their hands and feel betrayed by what the Obama
administration has not done, I start in a different place.
I continue to assert that Obama was knowable in 2008.
He was a charismatic, smart candidate who made the right
call on the Iraq War and stepped out on the issue when
it was necessary. He was also, as I said at the time,
someone who could appear to be different things to different
people. The problem was that too many of his supporters
saw what they wanted to see rather than what existed.
What existed? Well, from the beginning he was a corporate
candidate. We knew that. The question was not whether
he was one but the extent to which his views could be
shifted in order to take progressive, non-corporate stands.
Second, he was a candidate who was going to avoid race
as you or I would avoid a plague ship. He went out of
his way to prove that he was not an ‘angry black man’
and that race was not going to be an issue that he would
harp on. Third, he was clear that he wanted to change
the image of the USA
around the world, but it was not clear to what extent
he wanted to change the substance of the relationship
of the USA to the rest of the world.
Raising these and other issues in 2008 was exceedingly difficult.
Raising concerns regarding Obama and his views in 2008,
even when one offered critical support to the campaign
(as did I), was often met with accusations of throwing
a wet towel on a fire, and other such metaphors. Of course,
there were those who denounced Obama all the way, but
they offered very little as an alternative, with the exception
of what we must frankly characterize as symbolic political
action. What these fierce critics failed to address was
how to account for and speak with the masses of people
from various social movements who were gravitating toward
Obama’s campaign, individuals and groups looking to create
something very different in the USA (and around the world).
In fact, it was because of these masses of people, incorrectly
described as a “movement” by some but certainly an energized
base, and the potential of that base to become a transformative
force, that it was correct to critically support the Obama
campaign, despite the limitations of the campaign and
did we learn? We learned immediately that it was a mistake
to give any elected official, but particularly someone
reflecting more ‘center’ politics, a honeymoon. Virtually
every social movement and organization stepped back in
the interest of providing Obama space. It did not work.
There was space, alright, but the political Right seized
We also should have learned that it is not about the ‘man’
but it is about the administration. We, African Americans,
tend to focus too much on Obama-the-man. We like his speeches.
He is smart and seems to have a great family.
He sounds so sincere. He understands and appreciates our
culture. That is all well and good, but Obama-the-man
is not as important as Obama-the-administration. This
became all too clear during the Honduras
coup in 2009. A democratically elected government was
overthrown in a coup. Obama initially condemned this but
then did nothing to unseat the ‘coup people’ (a term made
famous by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, describing
those who overthrew President Gorbachov in the then Soviet
Union). Not only that, his administration
took steps to keep the democratically elected president
out of office and came up with a so-called compromise
that resulted in the forces of the wealthy elite returning
to power. In that sense, it does not matter whether we
like Obama as a person; it is a matter of what
we say about the policies of his administration.
Of course, we had a more recent example of this when no
one from the administration could quite explain why the
return of Haitian President Aristide from South
Africa was being opposed by the US government. Does Obama like or hate Aristide?
It does not matter; what matters are the actions of the
What should we do? First, we have to focus
on policies rather than intent. Those who uncritically
supported Obama in 2008 should not feel ashamed but neither
should they now flip into despair or abstentionism. We
have to keep in mind that this administration, as all
administrations, is affected by pressure. This administration
SEEMS to be more affected by pressure from the political
Right than pressure from progressives and those on the
Left but that is largely because the left and progressives
have failed to offer sustained pressure
on the administration. At each moment that many left and
progressives stand up to the administration, they are
more often than not met with bared teeth and a growl,
which then results in silence on our part. The political
Right understands that pressure is not about barking.
It is about biting.
So, in this sense, it is not about bringing Obama home.
It is about pressuring him to do not only what he has
promised but to go beyond what he has promised. This will
not come about through email exchanges or social media,
but it will come about through building mass pressure.
What could this look like?
of these “to dos” had Obama’s name on them. That is because
we are not simply confronting or attempting to influence
an individual. We are up against an empire and the spokesperson
for that empire happens to be someone in whom many people
placed excessive hope. The hope should have rested with
the millions who supported him and were seeking a better
day. Those are the people upon whom we need to focus so
that we can go beyond the Obama moment and move in a progressive
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Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher,
Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute
for Policy Studies,
the immediate past president ofTransAfrica
and co-author of
Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path
toward Social Justice(University
of California Press), which examines the crisis of organized
labor in the USA. Click
to contact Mr. Fletcher.