Louis, I remember vividly a community workshop put on by
The Justice Institute to assess President Obamaís first
100 days. JI is a progressive organizing and training institute.
It assessed Obamaís performance up to the 100 days in three
areas: education, healthcare and peace. The new president
received a few Bís, mostly Cís and Dís. He received no Aís
Ė too early to be an exemplary president but he received
no Fís Ė too early to tag him as a failure. Clearly, by
the 100 days, the thrill was gone for the transformative
change that Obama supporters were promised.
During his campaign and after his inauguration as the 44th U.S.
President, Obama told us to hold him accountable, to keep
his feet to the fire. We have failed to do so and I believe
the lack of leadership by the Left can be pointed to as
the main reason.
African Americans who make up a significant part of the Democratic
base were initially ambivalent about this black man with
a funny name.
Many were loyal to Hillary Clinton until she lost the Democratic
nomination. Eventually, the charismatic, articulate black
man of Kenyan descent won them over during one of the longest
presidential campaigns ever. After wailing and praying that
he survive a racistís bullet, black folks went to the polls
in record numbers and got our Messiah.
President Obama was cut a lot of slack from the beginning of his
term given the hot mess that George W created during his
8 years. The Bush Administration added $4 trillion dollars
to the national debt; created a net loss of over one million
jobs taking the crown from President Herbert Hoover as having the
worst jobs-creation performance by a President. Bush gave
the rich elite big tax breaks, a $700 billion dollars no-strings-attached
bailout, and deregulation. He took the country into an expensive
and illegal war. Obama inherited a tanking economy and the
list goes on. Add to the mix, the stifling antics by the
Grand Ole Party of No and the explosive racial fears throughout
the nation that are always simmering just below the surface.
President Obama is no leftist and has never proclaimed to be one.
Some of us have tried to keep that notion in political perspective
but far too many of us have unreasonable expectations on
various levels. We believed that Obama wanted to or could
make change without understanding the political landscape
that he would have to operate in. I am painfully aware of
the Obama tailor-made blunders, i.e. no public option to
the health care bill, beery polemics at the White House
with Professor Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. James Crowley,
Obama is no community organizer. He did what a number of self-serving
people do - learn just enough of the organizing basics to
advance their agendas and careers. I see this pervasive
practice operating most notably within labor unions and
the nonprofit world.
This brings me to the progressives, the radicals, the social movements,
the real organizers. What did we do during the Obama campaign
and what have we been doing since he came into office?
I give Barack Obama his props for running an effective and imaginative
campaign that drew in millions who actively participated
in generating a massive tidal wave that swept him into office.
Obama is probably single-handedly responsible for the 7.5
million more Democratic voters that came out in 2004 for
John Kerry. His savvy use of social networking brought an
unprecedented number of young people into the electoral
process. His grassroots approach to fundraiser produced
a record-breaking half billion dollars from almost 4 million
donors. To the Left, I said ďTake notes!Ē We
While the fury of the campaign raged on, sections of the Left were
embroiled in the age-old debate about the efficacy of electoral
politics. Others jumped into the campaign with everything
they had except an independent political strategy. Those
remaining hardly created a critical mass to impact the Obama
campaign or his administration. Based on the historic numbers
of young people, people of color and working class voters
engaged by the campaign, our organizational memberships
should have increased ten-fold and new energy and fresh
creativity infused into the mass movements. It didnít happen.
The Left is now being left out of the Obama administration. We couldnít
even save Van Jonesí job. Our impotence as a political force
is no longer a secret. We will not be able to philosophize
our way out of this malaise. We will not be able email or
text our way to freedom. It will take some real Ella Baker-style
organizing to build the kind of political base needed to
confront the empire and bring about the kind of changes
one man can never bring on by himself.
So, if the Left was assessed on the same quality of life indicators
that The Justice Institute evaluated Obama on, and say throw
in housing and juvenile crime, what grade would we give
ourselves? We donít have to go far for the truthful answer;
a look at our working class neighborhoods and its residents
says it all. The Left must get serious about analysis, strategy
and organization and not just to impact federal politics
but to drill down deeper on the local level.
What is the challenging work ahead for the Left?
- We must educate and train an army of new
organizers while updating and strengthening the skills
of veteran organizers. Our determination should be fueled
by the fact that neither the white power structure or
the masses take us seriously. Iím not talking about the
good, mass work of individuals; Iím talking about an entire
- We need to intensify the fight-back and
claim some victories in the every day struggles of working
people. We have to earn the respect of the people that
the social movements tend to glorify in their rhetoric
or mission statements but whom they have little meaningful
relationships with. You have to know the people, understand
the conditions and organize resources through face time
- We have to be involved in the bankrupt,
bourgeois democratic process because itís one of the few
spaces where we can engage masses of people into envisioning
a new kind of society. The caveat is not getting sucked
into the Democratic Party but to have a dual strategy
that is implemented internally and externally. The electoral
arena is not the only way to build power but it is an
- To that end, we must begin grooming potential
candidates for public office so that we can have some
real choices and expect allegiance to a progressive agenda.
It should be time out for candidates merely seeking a
job or a political career on the backs of working people.
- Progressives must be accountable to one
another and to our base of supporters. We must end sectarian
and individualism as they are harmful to our operational
unity and to our goals. No one is beyond constructive
criticism; we should be sophisticated enough to value
criticism and self-criticism.
The Left should do more than hold Obama to his campaign promises;
we should help materialize them. If nothing else, the GOP
strategy is consistent and it is steamrolling across the
country, making laws and decisions that will affect our
quality of life for years to come. We canít be smug as we
throw daggers at the centrist president; we now know his
weaknesses, his alliances and his thought-processes. President
Obamaís power is limited, ours is unlimited if we use it
Forward to building a genuine peopleís movement led by those most
affected by poverty, racism and gender oppression.
Click here to
read any commentary in this BC series.
Click here to
send a comment to all the participants in this BC series.
Editorial Board member, Jamala Rogers, is the leader of
for Black Struggle in St. Louis and the Black Radical Congress
National Organizer. Click
here to contact Ms. Rogers.