Holding Obama’s feet to the fire

With his appointment of a series of Clintonite economic and foreign policy advisers, Barack Obama has attracted fire from the American left. Doug Henwood, Gary Younge, Jo-ann Mort, Betsy Reed and Ta-Nehisi Coates debate the politics of Obama's candidacy and the huge mobilisation of support behind it

August 24, 2008
16 min read


Gary YoungeGary Younge is editor-at-large for the Guardian, a columnist for the Nation and the author of Another Day in the Death of America.

Doug Henwood There is something about the shift from the primaries to a general election that brings out the worst in a Democrat. First, there is the appointment of Jason Furman as an economic advisor. Furman famously argued that raising Walmart’s wage levels would force Walmart to raise prices, which would hurt the working class more than it would help them.

Furman is a Democrat Leadership Council (DLC)-style Democrat, someone out of the Clinton-Rubin summer school. [Rubin was Clinton’s treasury secretary and the DLC is a corporate-funded association of Democrat moderates, closely associated with the Clintons.] He joins Austin Gouldstein as Obama’s chief economic advisor. Gouldstein is famous for eulogising Milton Friedman, and for having been the top DLC economist.

Among that collection of ghouls, Obama recently announced his appointment of foreign policy advisors. They include former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who famously said that half a million dead Iraqi children killed by the sanctions imposed by the Clinton administration was a price worth paying. They also include Lee Hamilton and David Boren, two Congress people known for their protective attitude toward the CIA; Anthony Lake, Clinton’s national security advisor; and Susan Rice, another Clinton leftover and cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq.

I can’t say that I was surprised by any of these appointments, because I never doubted that Obama would be anything but a loyal servant of the empire, but it shouldn’t get past anyone that thought he represented a fresh start.

I think that there is no doubt that the lust for Obama, the mania that he has inspired, the departure from rationality and critical thinking, does represent some fantastic longing for a better world, more peaceful, egalitarian and humane. He is not going to deliver much on that, but there is some evidence of an admirable, popular desire behind the crush, and those desires will never leave disappointed. But, as I have argued for many years, there is great political potential in disillusionment with Democrats.

The working class are really, really pissed off at their standard of living, and the way that the rich have got more than the rest of us. I don’t think that Obama’s administration would do much to change that. But never did that possibility of disappointment offer so much hope. That is not what Obama means when he uses that word, but I think history can be a great artist.

Gary Younge Doug Henwood’s analysis would work best if Obama was standing in Sweden, or some other place where there was a large left wing that could support him wanting to turn left. He isn’t, he is standing in America and, for the best part of eight years, it has seen of one of the most reactionary governments that we have had for some time. You have to deal with the reality that exists, rather than one that you would like.

I think that most of the criticisms Doug makes of Obama are fine. But then you have to say, okay, Obama goes to AIPEC [America Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby group] and he genuflects, like John McCain and Hillary Clinton, so let’s go support the pro-Palestinian candidate. But there isn’t one.

So what I think many on the left are actually arguing for, and there is a case that one can make, is just don’t stand in elections. That the whole thing is corrupt and bankrupt, and that is it.

But if you are going to stand in elections and you are standing to win and be viable, then there is a context there that Obama inherits and didn’t create.

I think that it is very important to criticise Obama from the left. But if one leaves it there, then you don’t really get what I think is a crucial question for the left: how do we get from where we are now to this more progressive society? How do we get a better foreign policy?

Over the last eight years there has been a sense of despondency and frustration, and Obama’s candidacy is both the recipient of and a driver for the unleashing of that energy. There is a symbiotic relationship, I think, between Obama and his base.

The energy that you see in Obama’s base is among people who are desperate for something better, and that is what has enabled his candidacy to do so well. Which brings us to the question: are these people just deluded? Are we dealing with a massive, collective mania and false consciousness? Or do they see a possibility that they hadn’t seen in John Kerry or Al Gore?

The truth is that Obama has roused constituencies that had long been dormant, notably the black and the young. There is possibility in this – definitely the possibility of disappointment, but also the possibility of something better.

So we must ask ourselves two questions. First, are we going to abandon these people to disappointment, disillusionment and cynicism? Or are we going to engage them in a more progressive agenda that puts the pressure on Obama when he starts to flake? Do we provide him with critical support when he is starting to flake in certain areas already? Or do we decide cynical support or no support at all?

Second, who else? If you are on the left and you think that this is all delusional, all crazy, who else then brings 75,000 people out in Portland? Even for a half-way progressive programme, who else gets voter registration people working 12 hours a day in Louisiana? If not him at this moment, then who? Or what, or how?

Because in the five years that I have been here, and in the eight years since Bush came in, I haven’t seen as much possibility as I have now and if you don’t like this, you have to suggest something else. You have to go to Portland and say to those 75,000 people, you should be somewhere else. And they better go there, because otherwise all you are doing is sending them home.

Betsy Reed We are always looking at Democrat politics as both the more grass-roots and radical elements and the corporates, and these are very disparate elements. The former was in the forefront during the primaries in a very real way, in the form of the small donations that propelled Obama’s campaign, the sort of grass-roots, more progressive elements that have played a key role in bringing out those 75,000 people to those rallies, and really energising that black vote. This could completely revolutionise the electoral maths. There is discussion that a state like Georgia could actually be contested by Democrats.

That is nothing to shrug at, but the other thing that we have started to see more recently is that the corporate-Democratic hold on the party becomes painfully apparent when it shifts into general election mode. With the demise of the Hillary Clinton campaign, Obama has folded in that establishment element into his campaign, in particular with the hiring of Jason Furman as his campaign’s economic policy director.

If that is where we are beginning, it is pretty depressing. There have been some nods to the left. Obama’s people have mentioned the names of some progressive economists, but the people who are beginning to surround him now are similar to those who created the Clinton phenomenon.

The key question is ‘what role can the left play?’ We should have some leverage based on the grassroots energy that his campaign really depends on – he needs those volunteers.

The Obamamania thing was thrown around a lot by Clinton supporters, but there is something to it; there is a bit of hero-worship. It’s hard not to get a crush on the guy when you hear him because he is an amazing talker. And there is this desire to believe in him and not really think about what might be going on, and what might be wrong with him, and how we might try to push him in our direction.

Jo-ann Mort I want to start by picking up on something that Gary said: ‘We can have a discussion like this if we are in Sweden.’ But in Sweden the social democrats lost power and the conservatives are in power; it just shows how weak the left is globally. Even where there has been pretty much left-wing hegemony all of these years, there is a crisis of what defines the left and where the balance of power is.

I have been incredibly excited about Obama from the beginning. It is an amazing thing that America would nominate someone like him, and do it enthusiastically, and that he in fact may end up being the president. Now, as someone on the left, did I see him, and the excitement that I feel for him, as part of my left-wing agenda? No. I have never been one to think that the president of the US is the standard bearer for the left.

However, I think that now, in 2008, having lived through eight years of the Bush administration, an Obama presidency is a prerequisite for there to be any left at all in this country, and certainly for us to have the power in terms of the unions, working-class issues and opposition to corporatist economics.

The fact is that we, as the left collectively, are as weak as we have ever been. The only way that we are going to be able to build power is to have some breathing space in Washington, in the White House, that is going to make a difference.

I honestly don’t know if I can survive four years of John McCain. Just recently, I got an email to say that the US supreme court, Bush’s supreme court, made a decision that had struck down a California law that barred publicly-funded companies from speaking out against unions. We have a supreme court, a federal judiciary that is as anti-union as we could ever imagine, and then we have all of the regular Tory agencies against them. Bush has never had a meeting with the head of the AFL-CIO or the head of Change to Win, the two labour federations.

The current labour secretary thinks that her job is to investigate union leaders for corruption and block laws that would support workers’ rights on matters like health and safety in the workplace. So we need a good, elected Democrat in the White House, and I happen to think Obama is a centre-left candidate who will govern on the centre-left.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t do any of those things that Betsy and others have said in terms of keeping his feet to the fire. But we do have to look at the Jason Furman appointment in relation to how you get elected. This is still a very close election, but whereas McCain is moving to the right to sharpen his base – which to me shows that he is in trouble – Obama is moving to the centre, which is where you get the 50-plus-1 per cent of the votes you need to win.

The quick response to Furman’s appointment from trade unionists and others also made a big difference. Obama has pointed out that his economic team also includes Jared Burnstein from the Economic Policy Institute [a left-leaning think tank, which is close to the trade unions]. Robert Reich [Clinton’s labour secretary] has also been quite outspoken about the Furman appointment.

Do I have any illusions that the pro-Wall Street, pro-free trade agenda is not going to be the agenda leading the day? No, but that is because the labour movement is so weak.

The only way we are going to be able to strengthen the labour movement is to be able to strengthen laws, to allow workers the right to organise and allow workers to take back the power that they need. And I feel very strongly that the only way that is going to happen is to get Obama into the White House.

Ta-Nehisi Coates I’m going to talk about the most obvious thing for me, which is Obama as a black president.

We have to face the fact that at the end of the primary this man was commanding a 98 per cent majority in the African American community. To get 90 per cent of black people doing anything, much less going to the polls and going to a voting booth, that doesn’t involve Densel Washington, Electric Sly etc is a tremendous thing.

I have many reservations too. Obama is a man who is expressing nothing explicit, nothing tangible – a great racial transcendent, in fact, and this may offer an excuse to those who don’t want to talk about race to completely get out of the discussion.

Despite this, we still have to stand back and ask: what sort of condition are we in now? What sort of world are we in that he is commanding 90 per cent? What you have to face up to is that African Americans have really paid the price of the last eight years – when you look at Katrina, or the Iraq war.

The possibility of the most famous African American in the world not being an entertainer or a ball player is really encouraging. As an African American, you come home and what you see on TV is always bad news with your face on it, about a black person defiling some child, or getting arrested, always really bad news.

The idea that you come home, you turn on the TV and find Barack Obama on there beating the crap out of John McCain – I don’t know what that is worth, I don’t know how that measures against economic policy, or anything like that, but that is a cause for some sort of optimism.

I live up in Harlem, and everywhere you go there are Barack Obama posters. I was at this great event called ‘Real Men Cook’ this Saturday, and all the people who came up to speak had this great excitement and optimism in the African American community that I have not seen in a long time. For all of my criticisms of Barack, it is very hard for me to dismiss that and say that it just isn’t worth anything.

Doug Henwood When it comes down to it, Obama is just another Democrat with a sleazy real estate guy in his past, and the level of hope that people are mounting around him is just extraordinary to watch.

In terms of a president that can move us away from uncritical support of Israel – well, I’m afraid that a guy who’s middle name is Hussein is going to go out of his way to prove that he is not that guy, so I think that is another example of misplaced hopes.

Now people point to the degree of enthusiasm and support that he has drawn out, and that is interesting because the people who are so enthusiastic about supporting him are perhaps ahead of him, and perhaps ahead of what our judgment is of what the American population is willing to accept.

Maybe the working class really are pissed off, maybe they are ready for something more progressive than what we think they are, so that kind of mobilisation and enthusiasm is very encouraging in itself.

But I think that we need to prepare for the fact that these people are going to be very disappointed when they see what kind of government he runs. I think we have to be prepared for the disillusionment that comes, and be ready now, think about how we talk to people. It may take a year or two for people to realise how disillusioned they are but we have to be ready to talk to them when they are.

Gary Younge Well I think being on the left you are always prepared for disilluionment. That is the psychological nature of the left.

The challenge is really to be prepared for hope, and to be prepared for something that is actually better. It is really about the possibility – but not the certainty – that these huge numbers of people that you are seeing turning up aren’t deluded.

Maybe they have seen a vehicle for what they want. And the issue is, do we become a vehicle for him? Or does he become a vehicle for us? And those two things are not mutually exclusive, or assured.

That doesn’t mean we should be uncritical until Obama wins. In the UK, Labour tried the ‘just shut up and wait for the guy to get elected, everything will be fine’ line, and then we ended up with Blair, Brown and the most decimated left that we have had for years.

You shouldn’t give people a blank cheque. The left shouldn’t be taken for granted, and the idea that McCain moving to the right is a sign of weakness should be treated cautiously. Actually, Bush didn’t move to the centre. What Bush did was rally his base. And there is a way to win where you rally your base, and you get everybody out: that is actually how Bush won twice, not by moving to the middle.

Betsy Reed I think that there is some Obamamania out there. But I don’t think it is fair to say that he has run a content-less campaign. If you look at a lot of the speeches that he has given, he has a lot of ideas – although you might not agree with all of them. But in his challenge to trickle-down philosophy, he says there is something that government can do about the problems we face.

There is also his race speech about the legacy of racial pressures and what the responsibility of government is to respond to that. That is a different language from the one that we hear from Republicans, certainly, and it is a more progressive language than any we have heard from viable presidential candidates in my memory.

If you look back at Kerry, he didn’t even oppose the war. Sure, you can fault Obama for his war plan – I think that has been really under-scrutinised. In fact, Obama would preserve the green zone and the biggest embassy in world history. Basically, his plan would require anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 troops to remain in Iraq.

Despite this, Obama has a broadly anti-war agenda and a platform, an opening for the anti-war movement, if he is elected, to push him to end the war.

This is an edited transcript of ‘A People’s President? Barack Obama and the left’, a discussion at the Brecht Forum, New York, on 19 June 2008. Transcript: Jennifer Nelson and Lena de Casparis


Gary YoungeGary Younge is editor-at-large for the Guardian, a columnist for the Nation and the author of Another Day in the Death of America.


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