Notes on an Orientation to the Obama Presidency

by Linda Burnham 

The election of Obama, while enthusiastically embraced by 
most of the left, has also occasioned some disorientation and confusion.
Some have become so used to confronting the dismal
 electoral choice between the lesser of two evils that they
 couldn’t figure out how to relate to a political figure who 
held out the possibility of substantive change in a positive direction.
Others are so used to all-out, full-throated opposition to 
every administration that they wonder whether and 
how to alter their stance.
Still others sat out the election, for a variety of political 
and organizational reasons, and were taken by surprise 
at how wide and deep ran the current for change.
Now there’s an active conversation on the left about what 
can be expected of an Obama administration and what
 the orientation of the left should b e towards it. There are 
two conflicting views on this:
First, that Obama represents a substantial, principally
 positive political shift and that, while the left should
 criticize and resist policies that pull away from the
 interests of working people, its main orientation should 
be to actively engage with the political motion that’s underway.
Second, that Obama is, in essence, just another 
steward of capitalism, more attractive than most, 
but not an agent of fundamental change. He should 
be regarded with caution and is bound to disappoint. 
The basic orientation is to criticize every move the
 administration makes and to remain disengaged from 
mainstream politics. 
It is possible to grant that Obama is a steward of capitalism while also 
maintaining that his election has opened up the potential for substantive 
reform in the interests of working people and that his election to office is 
a democratic win worthy of being fiercely defended.
Obama is clear – and we should be too – about what he was elected to do.
 The bottom line of his job description has become increasingly evident as 
the economic crisis deepens. Obama’s job is to salvage and stabilize the
 U.S. capitalist system and to perform whatever triage is necessary to 
restore the core institutions of finance and industry to profitability.
Obama’s second bottom line is also clear to him – and should also
 be to us: to salvage the reputation of the U.S. in the world; repair the
 international ties shredded by eight years of cowboy unilateralism; and
 adjust U.S. positioning on the world stage on the basis of a rational
 assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the changed and 
changing centers of global political, economic and military power – 
rather than on the basis of a simple-minded ideological commitment 
to unchallenged world dominance.
Obama has been on the job for only a month but has not wasted a 
moment in going after his double bottom line with gusto, panache and 
high intelligence. In point of fact, the capitalists of the world – or at
 least the U.S. branch – ought to be building altars to the man and 
lighting candles. They have chosen an uncommonly steady hand to 
pull their sizzling fat from the fire.
For some on the left this is the beginning and the end of the story. 
Having established conclusively that Obama’s fundamental task 
is to govern in the interests of capital, there’s no point in adjusting 
one’s stance, regardless of how skillful and popular he may be. 
For the anti-capitalist left that is grounded in Trotskyism, 
anarcho-horizontalism, or various forms of 
 the only change worthy of the name is change that hits directly 
at the kneecaps of capitalism and cripples it decisively. All else is
 trifling with minor reforms or, even worse, capitulating to the power elite. 
From this point of view the stance towards Obama is self-evident: 
criticize relentlessly, disabuse others of their presidential infatuation,
 and denounce anything that remotely smacks of mainstream politics. 
Though this may seem an extreme and marginal point of view, it has
a surprising degree of currency in many quarters.
The effective-steward-of-capitalism is only one part of the Obama story. 
Obama did what the center would not do and what a fragmented and 
debilitated left could not do. He broke the death grip of the reactionary
 right by inspiring and mobilizing millions as agents of change. 
If Obama doesn’t manage to do even one more progressive thing 
over the course of the next four years, he has already opened up far
 more promising political terrain. His campaign:

Revealed the contours, composition and potential of a broad 
democratic coalition, demographically grounded in the (overlapping)
 constituencies of African -Americans, Latinos, Asians, youth 
across the racial groups, LGBT voters, unionized workers, urban
 professionals, and women of color and single white women, and 
in the sectors of organized labor, peace, civil rights, civil liberties,
 feminism, and environmentalism.  Obama did not create this broadly 
democratic electoral coalition single-handedly or out of whole cloth,
 but he did move it from latency to potency and from dispirited, 
amorphous and unorganized to goal oriented, enthusiastic and organized;
      Busted up the Republican’s southern strategy, the 
foundation of their rule for most of the last forty years, and the
 Democrat’s ignominious concession to this legacy of slavery; 
      Wrenched the Democratic Party out of the clammy grip 
of Clintonian centrism. (Although he himself often leads from the 
center, Obama’s center is a couple of notches to the left of the 
Clinton administration’s triangulation strategies); and

      Rescued political dialogue from its monopolization by hate-filled,
 xenophobic, ultra-nationalistic ideologues.
This is not change of the anti-capitalist variety, but certainly it is
 change of major consequence.
If the criterion is that the only change to be supported is that
 which strikes a decisive blow at capital, then the gap between
 where we are now and the realignment it would take to strike 
such a blow is completely and perpetually unbridgeable. 
A better set of criteria, in light of the weakness of the left and 
the decades of hyper-conservatism we are only now exiting,
 is change that: creates substantially better conditions for 
working people; broadens the scope of democratic rights for 
sectors of the population whose rights have been abrogated; 
limits the prerogatives of capital; constrains runaway militarism 
and perpetual war; takes seriously the prospect of environmental 
collapse; and creates better conditions for struggle. This is the 
potential for change that Obama’s presidency has generated. 
This is the democratic opening. It is potential that will only be
 realized and maximized if the left and progressives step up 
and stay engaged.

These are also the criteria to keep in mind as the Obama presidency
 unfolds, rather than flipping out over every appointment and policy
 move he makes. Far better to de-link from the 24-hour news cycle 
that feeds on micro-maneuvers, stop making definitive judgments 
based on parsing the language of every pronouncement, and 
keep our eyes on the broader contours of change. 

Besides the sectors of the anti-capitalist left that are stranded 
on Dogma Beach, there are those who see the tide running 
high but are still watching from the safety of the shore, hesitant
 to get in the water. There are those who have been so long 
alienated from mainstream political processes and so 
disgusted with both political parties and all branches
 of government that their default response is instinctive distrust. 
They view Obama’s presidency through the lens of 
anticipatory disillusionment. Their basic orientation 
is to analyze the administration’s every move with the
 goal of concluding, “See, we told you so. Obama’s gonna burn you.
 You’re gonna be disappointed.”  This is a mindset for jilted lovers, 
not political activists. Let us grant without argument that, from the
 vantage point of the left, there are many disappointments in store. 
This is easy enough to predict based not only on Obama’s own 
politics but also on the alignment
of forces and institutions in which he is embedded. And so what? 
We can survive disappointment over this or that policy or concession 
as long as we are making headway on the broader criteria above.

There are also those who stayed on the shoreline during
 the campaign because they are wedded to localism as 
a matter of preference, principle or habit. Others were
 lodged in organizational forms that, for structural, 
political or legal reasons, could not articulate with the 
motion and structures of the presidential campaign. 
These are complicated issues, bound up as they 
are with questions of resources and patterns of philanthropy.
 But for those who missed interacting with the motion of 
millions against the right, against the white racial monopoly 
on the executive branch, and for substantive change, their 
absence should, at the very least, prompt a serious 
examination of political orientation and organizational form.

Finally, there are those who are struggling to negotiate 
the existential shoals of a commitment to anti-capitalist
 politics in a period when the system is manifestly dying 
but not nearly at death’s door (and there have been all too 
many chronicles of that death foretold); major alternative 
systems have only recently collapsed or capitulated; 
and the vision, values and program that might bind together
 an anti-capitalist left and win broad support are still frustratingly
 obscure. There’s no remedy for this dilemma except to live
 in the times we’re in meeting the challenges we’ve been 
given and making the most of every opportunity, rather 
than anticipating capital’s demise or pining for a past
 beyond recovery.

In this period, then, the left has three tasks.

Our first job is to defend the democratic opening. This is a job
 we share with broader progressive forces and with centrists. 
Obama won big and retains the favorable regard of a sizeable majority.
 And meanwhile the Republican Party is in glorious disarray. 
But in no way should we take this situation for granted. 
The new administration faces daunting challenges and 
outright crises on every front. And while the right is 
disoriented and weakened, it has not and will not leave 
the playing field. The principal players and institutions 
of the right are, at this very moment, plotting how to 
undermine the administration, challenge every initiative 
that moves in the direction of democracy, progress and
 peace, and regroup to seize control, once again, 
of the state apparatus. 

Defense of the democratic opening means many things 
and ought to be the subject for discussion and strategizing on the left.
 But in practical terms, first and foremost, it means consolidating 
and extending the electoral alliance that made the opening possible. 
Any work that strengthens and broadens the voter engagement 
of the constituencies and sectors that secured Obama’s election 
is work that defends the democratic opening. This kind of voter education,
 registration and mobilization work can be done in conjunction 
with an extremely broad range of local campaigns and initiatives.
 And anything that hastens the demise of the southern strategy, 
builds on the wins in Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia 
(along with the significant southwestern shifts in New Mexico, 
Colorado and Nevada), and challenges structural barriers 
to voter participation (e.g., felony disfranchisement, 
voter ID laws) is critical. All this is another way of saying
 that the electoral
arena is an essential site of struggle for left and progressive 
forces in a way it has not been in at least 20 years. And this work,
 in which we have unity of purpose with the centrists, is vital 
to widening the Democratic majority in the 2010 congressional races,
 winning a filibuster-proof Senate majority, ensuring the successful 
re-election of Obama in 2012, and shaping both the parameters 
of viable Democratic candidates in 2016 and the outcome of that election.

Our second job is to contribute to building more united, effective, 
combative and influential progressive popular movements. 
This places the highest premium on strengthening and 
extending our ties with broader progressive forces, both inside 
and outside the Democratic Party, with an eye towards 
building long-term relationships and alliances among individuals,
 organizations and sectors. Anything that thickens and enriches 
the relationships among left and progressive actors in labor, 
religious institutions, policy think tanks, grassroots organizations,
 academia etc. is to be supported in the interests of strengthening 
the capacity of the left-progressive alliance to influence policy, 
to encourage and shore up whatever progressive inclinations 
might emerge from within the administration, and to resist 
administration tendencies to accommodation and capitulation 
to center-right forces. At this early stage of Obama’s tenure it
 is already evident what some of
the most vital left-progressive alliance building ought to focus on.
 In foreign policy, on war and militarism in general and on Iraq,
 Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, Iran and non-proliferation
 in particular.  In domestic policy, on health care and on solutions
 to the economic crisis that hold the financial sector accountable
 for reckless and predatory practices while addressing the 
particular vulnerabilities of working people, the poor, women, 
immigrants and communities of color. And, at the intersection 
of global and domestic policy, on oil dependency and global warming. 
All that enhances our capacity to constructively engage in debating
 and influencing policy on these issues is to the good. All that 
obstructs or distracts is highly problematic.

We’ve exited a period of collective psychic depression only
 to enter one of global economic depression. Each day, as 
the institutions of finance capital collapse, the corruption, 
greed and mismanagement of the nation’s economic system 
are further revealed. Broad sectors of the population have been 
shocked into a more skeptical and critical stance towards 
capitalism, and the need for some measure of structural change
 wins near-universal acceptance. The clash of rising expectations
 (encouraged by the hope and change themes of the Obama campaign) 
and a sinking economy will likely spark new levels and forms 
of popular resistance. In this political environment, alliance
 building will be complicated, messy and filled with political 
tensions and tactical differences. It is imperative nonetheless.

Our third job, and perhaps the trickiest, is to build the left. 
First let it be said that unless we are able to demonstrate 
a genuine commitment and growing capacity to take on the
 first two jobs, the third is a non-starter, and a prescription 
for political isolation. In other words, defending the democratic 
opening in conjunction with the center and building long-term
 relationships between the anti-capitalist left and broad progressive 
sectors in the context of the struggle over administration policy 
must be understood as critical tasks in their own right, 
not simply as arenas in which to advance an independent left line
 or to recruit new adherents to an anti-capitalist perspective. 
Realizing the progressive potential of the Obama win requires the
 most committed involvement with the twists and turns of politics 
on the most pressing issues on the administration’s agenda.

This same engagement is critical to rebuilding the left, 
a long-term process that can be advanced significantly
 in the context of Obama’s presidency if, and only if, the 
left can skillfully manage the relationship and distinction 
between its own interests, dynamics and challenges and
 those of broader political forces. Why is this the case? 
On the tell no lies front, the left is more isolated and fragmented 
than it has been in forty years. Truly fine work is being done
 by leftists in every region of the country and on every social issue. 
But the left qua left is barely breathing. This is not the place 
to go into the historical (world historical and U.S. historical),
 ideological, theoretical and organizational reasons why this is so.
 But let us, at the very least, frankly acknowledge that it is so. 
The current political alignment provides an opportunity to break 
out of isolation, marginalization and the habits of 
self-marginalization accumulated during
the neo-conservative ascendancy. It provides
 the opportunity
 to initiate and/or strengthen substantive relationships
 with political actors in government, in the Democratic Party,
 and in independent sectors, as well as within the left itself 
– relationships to be built upon long after the Obama presidency 
has come to an end. It provides the opportunity to accumulate
 lessons about political actors, alignments and centers 
of power likewise relevant well beyond this administration. 
And it provides the opportunity for the immersion of the leaders,
 members and constituencies of left formations in a 
highly accelerated, real world poli-sci class.

In these circumstances, among our biggest challenges 
is how to attend to building the capacity of the left without 
succumbing to the siren songs of dogma, the old addictions 
of premature platform erection, or the self-limiting pleasures 
of building parties in miniature.  For the anti-capitalist left, 
this is a period of experimentation. There is no roadmap;
 there are no recipes. Those organizational forms and initiatives 
that enable us to synthesize experience, share lessons and 
develop broad orientations and approaches to seriously undertaking
 our first two tasks should be encouraged. Those that would 
entrap us in the hermetic enclosures of doctrinal belief should 
be avoided at all cost.

The Obama presidency is a rare confluence of individuals and events. 
There is no way to predict how things will unfold over the next 4-8 years.
 But this much we can foresee: if the opportunity at hand is
 mangled or missed, the takeaway for the left will be deepened
 isolation and fragmentation. If, on the other hand, the left engages
 with this political opening skillfully and creatively, it will emerge
 as a broader, more vibrant force on the U.S. political spectrum, 
better able to confront whatever the post-Obama world will bring.

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