Sunday, July 24, 2011
Obama is not the issue-- we are
Obama Is Not The Issue. This Is About US
by Jonathan Tasini
The anger against the president that has been rocketing around
many circles of liberal/progressive politics is misplaced.
The crisis we face isn’t about what the president is doing, or
failing to do.
We are under siege, fighting the greatest class warfare in perhaps
100 years. And we can expect very little help from a political system
that has aided, without regard to party, the looting of the country
over the past 30 years.
The crisis we face is about us: the people who count themselves as
activists and leaders.
Certainly, it does matter if we have good elected, political
leadership—and it is legitimate to point out the lack of leadership,
or just really bad leadership.
BUT, leadership in the absence of a mass, focused, coordinated
movement is powerless—even if leaders, somewhere deep inside, want to
do the right thing.
And we do not have such a movement.
Who Obama Always—ALWAYS—Has Been
Somewhere, not long ago, I copied down a blog comment: “Obama is
not who he told us he is. He’s not the person we voted for or the
person who we want in the White House.”
Respectfully, most of the statement is not true but it does reflect
what a lot of people feel: Obama misled us.
But, generally speaking, he didn’t. After poking at this piece, on
and off, for six months, I decided to finish it mainly because Obama
is likely to broker a disastrous deal with Republicans over the debt
ceiling controversy--and the cries that he betrayed us will escalate.
A number of the president’s critics today were once supporters and
are now described as “disappointed”. But, they preferred not to listen
to him, or they engaged in a serious case of wishful thinking or
cognitive dissonance during the 2008 campaign. I understood who Obama
would be—I actually listened to what he said, what he wrote, how he
voted and what he believed in.
During the campaign, then-candidate Obama said very clearly: I
believe in the “free market” and I am a “free trader”. Sure, he said
he would protect Social Security and, memorably, said that, as
president, he would walk picket lines.
Reality: he surrounded himself with many of the very people who
were committed to the very concept of the “free market” that led to
the implosion of the financial system and, casting our view much
further back, to the decades-long robbery of the wealth of our
country. Robert Rubin and his Wall Street-“free market” acolytes were
in the Obama inner circle for a long time and they clearly held far
more sway than any one or two token “liberal” voices.
Then-candidate Obama repeated numerous times that the Iraq War was a
distraction from the “right war” in Afghanistan—a bloody, foolish,
immoral disaster that continues to cost our country the lives of
American and Afghani men and women, and hundreds of billions of
dollars. Afghanistan is Obama’s war now—and a stain that will follow
him for years to come.
You can accept Obama’s true core beliefs without trivializing the
movement that brought him to office. Based on his actual record, I did
not support Obama in the primaries until it came down to a two-person
race. But, I was still amazed, and moved, by the huge crowds that
filled arenas and the tens of thousands of people who put volunteer
energy and many free hours into politics, some for the first time, to
get Obama elected.
People understood that the country was in a crisis—after 8 years of
the Bush Administration that was not a hard conclusion to reach—and
they were really thirsty for a leader who could tap into what they
Obama tapped into those feelings. You can--and should--continue to
celebrate the energy, optimism and commitment that put Obama into the
White House, without having to be blindly in love with the candidate
who represented that movement.
And it was also clear that he had to win the election. I live in a
grey world and sometimes I am forced (dammit!) to accept two opposing
ideas at the same time—as do the millions of people whose day-to-day
lives are deeply influenced by the decisions made by thousands of
political appointees running federal departments. The alternative
(President John McCain) was unimaginable.
I accept, not happily, that, on the one hand, we must overturn or
spark an upheaval in the two–party political system that has been
bought lock, stock and barrel by corporate power and, on the other
hand, that one of those parties (in my view, Democrats), will actually
make the vast majority of workers slightly better off today. So, in
2008, I got my ass out to Pennsylvania (since New York was an
uncontested presidential Democratic state) to knock on doors to make
sure the true lunatics did not win.
Which leads me to another grey-world point: the Administration has
promoted legislation that makes a positive difference in peoples
lives, from expanding the SCHIP program that covers millions of
children to a commitment to expand “green” infrastructure investments
to saving hundreds of thousands of jobs via the auto industry
financial rescue plan (a plan that worked, by the way) and on and on.
It is not helpful, and not accurate, to be reductionist. Criticism
of the president is needed and fair—and I have written my share of
strong and harsh critiques. But, to engage in black-and-white
rhetoric—that he is perfect or that he is entirely a sell-out—doesn’t
help us understand where we are today.
If you accept that the greatest threat to our nation today is the
class warfare underway, then, the president has not been willing to
confront that. And probably never will.
But, that is not his responsibility.
That is our responsibility.
A responsibility we can only fulfill if we build a movement of people.
And we have failed in that quest.
Why We Have Failed?
I take as a given the vast powers arrayed in the country who have
no interest in ending the robbery of our country’s wealth by the few:
FOX News, the worst elements of corporate America, the current
conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, political leaders in
both parties who get on their hands and knees to pocket campaign
contributions from the rich and powerful.
But, I think pointing to all the adversaries is a cop-out. Those
who think Fox News, Corporate America and the Republican Party are too
powerful didn’t live in, or at least didn’t read the history of, the
early part of the 20th Century when the rapidly anti-union press
thrived, Pinkertons and company goons killed union organizers without
a second thought, the Robber Barons ran the country and outright
political bribery was far more endemic than today.
And, yet, during those times, we had a great surge in people
organizing for economic justice. And, unlike today, people were
literally risking their lives.
Ask yourself this question: if you believe, as I do, that
progressive values—defined as sharing the wealth of the richest nation
on earth, saving the planet from physical destruction and
transitioning into a country that is a super country, not a
superpower, because of the hand it stretches out in peace—are shared
by the majority of people, why have we failed to seize the moment when
we face truly global economic and diplomatic catastrophes?
We have failed, in part, because too many liberal/progressive
leaders and organizations repeat and strengthen the very failed
narratives and myths framing the crisis. You can probably think of
your own myths. My favorites are Three Grand Myths.
Three Grand Myths
Myth #1: The Debt and Deficit “Crisis”
There is no deficit or debt “crisis”. None.
I share the anger at the Administration for buying and promoting
the phony “crisis” frame (not the least of which was the president’s
decision to set-up the goofy Simpson-Bowles Commission).
But, the real problem is this: virtually every policy group, and
many leaders and “progressive” media organs, on our side—all
well-intentioned people—strengthened the narrative of the “crisis”.
Instead of making the argument that there is no crisis and that we
have to spend far more money on the real crisis—jobs—to heal the
economic crisis that has built over 30 years, they enhanced the phony
debate by putting out their own plans on how to “solve” the “crisis”.
Rather than be clear that there is no debt or deficit crisis, many of
the people, who are viewed as intellectual and movement leaders,
advanced the same framing.
That has been a huge error.
Here is one of those frankly, idiotic and self-defeating
statements—this from the mouth of a director of an organization that
bills itself “progressive”. In a press release incomprehensibly
titled, “Conrad’s 50-50 Proposal Is A Good Sign,” the “progressive”
leader praises Sen. Kent Conrad—one of the leading purveyors of the
phony deficit crisis—for a proposal that would cut critical government
services by hundreds of billions of dollars: “The Conrad proposal is
the first strong Democratic proposal that has come out of these
The statement is full of self-delusion—that is, that a “50-50
proposal” could cut $2 trillion from the budget but, the statement
demands, the proposal has to be one in which, “No deal that takes more
out of the programs for middle income and poor Americans than it takes
from tax breaks, loopholes and havens for the rich and the big
corporations, and no deal that undermines the economic recovery.”
The statement promotes and endorses the immoral framing of “shared
sacrifice”—that people who have already paid dearly for the financial
mess of the past years with millions of jobs lost and devastated
retirement funds, should give even more to repair damage they had no
hand in creating.
I believe that the capitulation is typical: a bunch of people want
to have their invitation to the cocktail party—see below—and you can’t
be part of the clique of the Smart and Powerful People if you don’t
mouth the mainstream accepted chatter. Worse, it shows a fundamental
misunderstanding about the roots of our crisis.
But, accepting this myth has had its effect. We have a foolish
obsession about the debt and deficit—and we have put at risk what is
left of a frayed societal network.
Myth #2: The “Good Years” of the Clinton Administration
We continually recycle the nostalgic desire to return to the days
of Bill Clinton because, boy, were those great years for the economy.
Really? I suppose people yearn for those days in comparison to the
ruinous Bush Administration years that followed. But, we should not.
The Clinton “good years” were built on two massive financial and
technology speculative bubbles—not broad, lasting, wage-driven
prosperity and power for people.
The Clinton “good years” were right smack in the middle of a
30-year decline in wages compared to productivity.
The Clinton “good years” were led by a president, and supported by
a Secretary of Labor (Robert Reich), who were enthusiastic supporters
of NAFTA and its clones—the trade strategy that has, at its core, the
lowering of wages.
The Clinton “good years” were a high-water mark for mindless
deregulation that put the entire country’s democracy and economic
security at risk by increasing the power of two of the most
influential industries in the country and the world—the media industry
(thanks to the 1996 Telecommunications Act) and the financial world
(thanks, among other things, to the repeal of Glass Steagall--see the
gleeful pic below--in favor of the Orwellian-sounding Financial
Services Modernization Act—we know how that worked out).
In the “good years”, Clinton, Reich, and the whole lot of them only
used the word “union” when they needed the labor movement—usually to
write a check for some political campaign.
In the Clinton “good years”, we allowed workers to feel like they
were stupid because the president and his Secretary of Labor (the
latter using his entirely goofy “symbolic analyst” phrase) kept
telling people they had to be better educated to make a decent
wage—even though the actual FACTS showed that the biggest growth in
jobs were coming in places where college-level education was
Neither the president, Reich and other Serious People had the spine
or the inclination to say very clearly: corporate interests were
robbing America and driving down wages (As an aside, I am in awe of
Reich: he is one of the country’s great self-promoting, Zelig-like
observers of what is intellectually “hot”. He escapes any
responsibility as he hops from one sketchy idea to another and has now
re-branded himself—again—into a new posture, this time as a defender
of working people, a group of people he will drop like a plague when
something “hotter” comes along. Breathtaking.).
The Clinton “good years” raised to an art form the selling of our
political institutions and electoral system to the highest corporate
bidder or hedge fund manager who was willing to write a check to fund
the Clinton political machine—an art form that cascaded throughout the
Democratic Party, particularly to people who sat on Banking and
And, last but not least, the Clinton “good years” reinforced the
fundamental dynamics of the so-called “free market”, which has robbed
Until we stop the foolish praising of the Clinton “good years” we
aren’t going to be able to speak coherently about how we got into the
mess we are in and how to get out.
Myth #3: “We Have The Best Workers in the World”
It’s hard to find an article of faith that is more racist and, at
the same time, politically acceptable than the idea that “we have the
best workers in the world”. And it is a concept that is repeated,
often, by political leaders across the spectrum, “liberal” thinkers
and, yes, labor leaders.
You can hear these words spoken a lot, whether they are wrapped
cleverly in bizarre ideas like “symbolic analysts” or mindless
chest-thumping about how American workers can kick anyone’s ass—if
they are just given a “level playing field”.
Consider what would happen to any candidate running for election if
she or he said the following: “Our country does not have the smartest
and best workers. We have very hard-working and bright people but so
does every country around the world”. Those two sentences alone would,
overnight, be a YouTube sensation and engender immediate calls for the
candidate to drop out of the race because of his or her lack of
patriotism and faith in America.
And it isn’t true. By repeating this, we never make headway in
building a broad movement to take on class warfare here and around the
Why do we repeat these myths, and other similar, nonsensical,
factually incorrect arguments?
Political elected leaders—the good people— do so because most of
them just are astonishingly not curious individuals. They don’t read.
They don’t challenge what they hear in their own circles.
To get elected, they lapse into the same way of thinking about
challenges we face. To be accepted in the party machine, they
regurgitate memes without even thinking what they mean (I call it the
“we honor the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform” widget). And
those are the GOOD people.
Many just don’t live the crisis: the people who pocket most of the
foundation money that keeps them going, or those who have been
anointed “leaders”, enjoy a personal comfort and station in life
enjoyed by very few of the people they profess to represent. At the
end of the day, they return to their homes in Adams Morgan or the
suburbs, or on the Upper West or East Sides of Manhattan, feeling none
of the pain or threats faced by the rest of the country.
They also deeply value, as one person astutely put it to me, the
invitation to the cocktail party—an invitation that became even more
valued in 2008 when Barack Obama entered the White House. No one wants
to threaten that invite. And, so, it is dangerous to be seen as too
“radical” or talking about “class warfare” because you might not be
credible—credible means being accepted into the circles of the policy
wonks, being able to raise money from rich liberals and/or liberal
foundations, and, perhaps most crucial, getting THE invitation: the
cocktail party invitation to The White House (or the Easter egg roll
or the Hanukkah party).
The drift can be very subtle and gradual.
One day, you are a leader, usually young and energetic, who sees
clearly that the system is rotten. And, then, years later, without
even seeing the change, self-censorship sets it: a foundation gives
you a little money to produce reports or organize a conference and,
then, the organization gets addicted to that money. To get it again,
you have to satisfy the predilections of the foundation program
officer or board chair—and those inclinations are rarely about
changing the system and usually about showing how many times the
organization was quoted in the traditional press.
There is also virtually no accountability inside the movement. If
you are incompetent or, at best, you simply don’t make waves, you are
continually rewarded with new jobs and new posts. If you are an
organization that makes foundations or wealthy people comfortable, you
just keep on thriving because the system is gamed.
Almost no one asks: what has this person, or organization, done
lately that is new, or that challenges what has been done and repeated
year after year? Success is almost an after thought.
We should not wallow in nostalgia for the early part of the 20th
Century when millions of people poured into unions (for a variety of
reasons). But, a friend once pointed out to me that workers used to
drive 50 or 100 miles to a union meeting. Why?
People drove that far because they had no choice. It was about
survival. People were desperately poor. The people who were arrested
in strikes and other actions were the leaders, as well as the
rank-and-file, because they all came from the same economic reality.
I do not want to minimize how hard it is to build a movement. But,
I think it is worth recognizing that, even with the crisis we face,
we’ve been changed.
Poverty and economic struggle has a different face: The Waltons are
always there to make another buck from poor people who can’t shop
anywhere else. But, people can shop and buy food (even if the food
might be unhealthy). And, even though homelessness is at unimaginable
levels, this country does not have deep swaths of people earning $2 a
day like many other countries. Being poor here is not the same as
climbing around on a trash heap in Mumbai.
No doubt, people live in fear—even if they can shop.
Too many leaders do not live in the same economic reality as the
rank-and-file. As long as foundations and/or rich people keep giving
money, or as long as people can hold on to power for power’s sake, as
long as liberals and progressives are willing to cross picket lines
because they choose to make their own choices on what is individually,
not collectively, good for them, then, we cannot build a movement.
This is not because they are corrupt. It is because they are way
too comfortable. Just think about this: what has YOUR institution, or
the institution from which you receive yet another request to sign a
petition, done recently to risk itself, its funding, or the personal
liberty of its leaders? If the answer is “nothing” or “very little”,
then, hard questions need to be asked whether all the policy papers,
conferences, speeches, rallies and other efforts are making any
One school of thought argues that we need more people engaged in
elections. I love electoral politics. But, until we have an entirely
publicly-financed election system and we undo the Citizens United-type
Supreme Court decisions, which are basically a blank check for the
economically powerful to buy Congress and a barrier to normal, regular
people running for office, elections are not the solution to ending
the astonishing robbery of the people.
We certainly don’t need more conferences.
We don’t need more policy papers or ideas.
We have plenty of ideas, papers and new “flavor-of-the-moment”,
high-concept exhortations to save the “American Dream”—none of which
is new (though, in fairness, one has to recognize how effective “Save
The American Dream” pleas are in raising money because it is very,
non-threatening and foundation-friendly).
We have to risk institutions, not build new ones.
We have to bring the country to a halt to stop the robbery.
We have to stop commerce.
We have to fill jails. Not with a few people but with tens of
thousands of people.
We have to do all of this peacefully but in a way that challenges
the controlled orchestration of protest, which never puts our
institutions and personal liberty at stake.
People who want to replicate Tahrir Square--which is the new
metaphor for protest--need to remind themselves each time that those
people were risking their freedom, and their lives, each day. We do
Last year, I went to jail as part of a protest in New York City
against the Arizona anti-immigrant laws. I had been through this type
of efficient and pre-arranged protest and arrest before: we sat down
in the streets, the police politely led us to the paddy wagons, we
spent a few hours of inconvenience in jail cells, where we chatted and
laughed while the (bored) officers processed paperwork and, then, we
were out—waving to the jubilant crowds outside and feeling very good
But I was very aware that the process was nothing like the fear
that is actually felt when an actual undocumented worker is grabbed
out of a home or workplace, dropped into a cell and, either jailed for
long periods of time or deported—often ripped away from a family.
That’s the way it really works.
And did our action change the system? No.
I don’t dismiss action that starts small and grows bigger…but I
think the system has quickly adapted to the symbolic protests. I’m
done signing petitions—they seem now to be mostly about list-building
and further organization building, not action that is noticed.
Action will only mean something if people are risking something
more than a few hours of inconvenience. Days, weeks and, perhaps,
Otherwise, the system shrugs and moves on.
Obsessing about Obama is a waste of time. He isn’t the source of
the crisis. He won’t fix the crisis.
That is up to us.