The Impossible is Now Possible: Assessing the Obama Presidency


Considering all of the political complexities of the new era we have entered, President Obama has done a remarkable job in his short time in office. Those of us on the left need to look ahead and refuse to let differences with some of the President’s decisions keep us from seeing the historic and positive changes that are happening. The way we disagree with the President is also important. We need to make sure that nothing we do will help the right-wing anti-Obama campaign that 'wants Obama to fail.'

Many on the left are upset and disappointed with Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan, his part in the Wall Street bailout and some of his appointments. Some are also bothered by aspects of his health care and environmental proposals and some specifics of his timetable and priorities for change.

No struggle is pure, however. And the prize we have to keep our eyes on is the growing strength of the labor and people’s movement and the overall fight for democracy. Did Obama’s election strengthen the peace, labor, anti-racist, environmental, immigrant, women’s and youth movements? It qualitatively did. Did his election positively affect the lives of the working majority, especially in their ability to survive this economic crisis? Has the election of our 44th President increased the confidence of the people that they can fight for and achieve a better life for themselves and their families? Has it strengthened multiracial unity, the fight against racism, sexism, homophobia and all forms of bigotry? The answer is an emphatic Yes!

A chance for change

In his historic election night speech, Obama said, “This victory alone is not the change we seek – it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.”

In that speech he called for people to build a post-election movement and continue to work with him to bring about change. He said, “I will listen to you especially if we disagree.” It was a call to work together, and if we disagree he is open to listening. The left needs to understand that the tactics used against Bush in the old period have to change to fit the new situation.

Today we have a president with huge support among working people and the racially oppressed. The people’s movements that they are a part of are in motion, and they are working with the President in the fight for real change.

They recognize the right danger, and they are not going to let us go back to the failed policies of Bush and company. They know, especially in these hard economic times, that it is they who will suffer the consequences if President Obama fails.

If Obama fails we all fail

The strategy of the extreme right is to bring Obama down by building a movement against his policies. They still have a tremendous voice in the mass media, and they are hammering away at any issues they think will gain support. That is what the tax day “Tea Parties,' the anti-choice demonstrations at the Notre Dame commencement and now the insurance-industry sponsored uproar at health care town hall meetings have been all about. The ridiculous charge that Obama is a socialist who is recklessly piling up the national debt is also part of their game plan. Those of us fighting for real change have to defend the President against those who are out to derail his entire program. While this doesn't mean we always agree with him on everything, when and how we disagree is important, because if he fails we all fail.

Obama is not a socialist, but he does believe in democracy. He is trying to do what a democratic government should do, that is, provide for the general welfare of the people. Compared to the previous administration that seems almost revolutionary.

The right-wing campaign against the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court was particularly disgusting. The blatantly racist tone of the Republican opposition demanded that all democratic-minded people support her nomination vigorously. The American people were not complacent in the face of the virulent racism against Judge Sotomayor.

As we know from the last 30 years, with the use of racism yesterday’s lunatic fringe can become tomorrow’s mainstream. Though greatly weakened, the right danger is still a factor. As they lose ground they are becoming more desperate and dangerous. People like Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck should not be ignored. They need to be and are being exposed for the racist demagogues they are.

Imagine it! These racist jackals of capitalist greed called the first Latina nominated to the Supreme Court “a racist.” Judge Sotomayor only said that someone from her class or ethnic background would have more empathy for others of a similar background then a white male judge raised in the privileged corners of America. That’s coming from a Puerto Rican woman raised by a single mother with a modest income, and who fought her way up to becoming a federal judge. And they called her a racist?

These are the same people who pushed the “three strikes” rule (which has punished thousands of poor and minority offenders with long-term imprisonment) and introduced harsher penalties for crack than for the possession of power cocaine. They are the ones who support racial profiling, police brutality, immigrant bashing, the packing of our prisons disproportionately with Blacks and Latinos, and the racist death penalty. They are the most vocal against the Employee Free Choice Act and universal health care reform, and they defend the use of torture by the Bush administration. Calling Sonia Sotomayor a racist is racist in itself. They know full well whom all these policies are disproportionately aimed at, and it’s not rich white people.

If there is anyone who should apologize for racism, it is the right-wing trash-talkers who attacked her and spread their venom on the airways every day. Our nation desperately needs the empathy of Judge Sotomayor on the highest court in the land. The point is we can't ignore these right-wing jackals, nor assume that their racist tactics are ineffective. There are millions of people who listen to their poison every day on the media.

The labor movement also has a role to play in defending Obama and opposing racism. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, at the annual convention of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists this summer, gave an excellent speech against racism and why the labor movement must continue that fight. He said, “We will never decouple our fight for economic justice from the fight for racial justice.” After describing Bush as the worst president ever, he went on to say that “Obama has done more for organized labor in two months then Bill Clinton did in eight years.” Trumka spoke forcefully about how the working class must fight racism. His speech demonstrates that a higher level of class-consciousness has grown out of the 2008 election struggle.

Since the election, the labor movement has been in alliance with the Obama administration fighting for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. This fight cannot be won without building broad multi-racial unity, including both people inside and outside of the labor movement. That unity is not possible without fighting racism. That’s part of the big picture. What was impossible before the election is now possible.

The impossible is now possible

What was impossible before the election is now possible. To illustrate my point, back in the 1990s there was a movement organized to pass the Martinez bill for public works jobs. It called for spending $500 billion over 10 years to build schools, housing, health care facilities, infrastructure, etc. For years, congressional Republicans refused to let it out of committee for an up-or-down-vote on the floor of Congress. Then Rep. Matthew Martinez, D-Calif., lost his seat and the bill was not reintroduced. That was then.

Today, Obama’s stimulus package (known as the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act”) dwarfs the Martinez bill in scope, amounts to close to $1 trillion, and is projected to create over 3.5 million jobs. It passed within one month of Obama taking office. This is now.

It was President Obama’s historic election that set the stage for the stimulus package to pass. It has made the impossible possible.

Under the Bush neo-con regime it was impossible to pass real health care reform. But now reform is possible. It may have to start with passage of the Obama plan for a public option included with a mix of private plans, but that can open the door for the passage of an HR 676 single-payer-type bill at a later point.

The end of the war in Iraq, the restoration of the right of Cuban Americans to send remittances to their relatives in Cuba and the closing of Guantanamo were not possible before, but now they are. Despite the folly of escalating the war in Afghanistan, peace is far more possible today than before the last election. The struggle for peace continues, but it is being waged on a higher level since the Republicans suffered an historic defeat last November.

Consider also, the Waxman-Markey bill, which would limit greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not everything the environmentalists want, but it is still considered a good bill. Again, such legislation is only possible today because of the election of Obama and the new Congress.

In an op-ed in the New York Times last May, Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Krugman made a similar point about the passage of the Waxman-Markey Bill, a bill of which he is somewhat critical. “After all the years of denial,” he wrote, “after all the years of inaction, we finally have a chance to do something major about climate change. Waxman-Markey is imperfect; it’s disappointing in some respects, but it is action we can take now. And the planet won’t wait.” He warned, “We shouldn’t make the 'perfect' the enemy of the good.” I think that is good advice generally for the left today.

These things have to be understood about the new administration and the new era we have entered. The fight for reforms is the main battleground in the fight for progress. It is critical to understand that today. I would add that those who only favor “fundamental change” but reject reforms, will end up isolated and merely marking time politically.

Assessing Obama presidency up to now

As I said earlier, there are those on the left who are clearly disappointed with some of the early actions of the Obama administration. My view is that when you look at the big picture and the new potential for change, Obama’s election is the most positive overall political development our country has seen in 30 years. Obama was not only a great candidate, he is also a great president, and he is fighting the good fight on a number of fronts. However, I agree with Sam Webb (National Chair of the CPUSA) when he says that it would be wrong to think of him as the president of the left. He is not.

Webb, who sees the big picture, correctly describes this period not as an era of disappointment, as some are starting to say, but as a “springtime of possibilities.” He describes Obama not as a president of the left but as a “reformer,” and adds that “we are entering an era of reforms, possibly radical reforms.” I think that is very accurate. The left can have a positive impact if it understands what is and what is not possible in this period.

Taking Sam Webb’s assessment into account, I do not have a tactical formula to offer fits all circumstances, but my sense is that Obama is heading in a positive direction. The left has to approach Obama with the view that:

• He is not the enemy. • He will listen. • He can be convinced to respond positively.

Moreover, the left and progressive forces are linked to Obama’s destiny. Harry Belafonte, an astute political observer in addition to being a talented performer, correctly noted that if the right wing is able to defeat Obama on health care, the Employee Free Choice Act, his environmental program, abortion rights, the war or any of his key policies, it would be a huge setback for the all of us too. We must not let that happen.

We have to remember that Obama has already done some unprecedented things.

He has passed a stimulus package that is bringing jobs and relief, and also moves towards restoring the concept that the role of government is to help the people. It has a trickle-up aspect to it, versus the past 30 years of trickle-down policies. When he met with both major labor confederations recently, John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, described how the White House has become the “house of working families.” Last January, Obama himself let labor leaders know that his administration did not like having to deal with two separate labor federations, and called on Change to Win and the AFL-CIO to move toward becoming one united federation again. That was an unprecedented statement coming from a sitting president.

In another significant sign of progress, Obama restored the right of Cuban Americans to send remittances to family members in Cuba. This is the very important beginning of a new process towards dropping the travel ban and normalizing relations. Following through on the promise to close the prison at Guantanamo was a further step in the right direction. Now great things are possible that were mere hopes before.

Again, we need to look at the big picture. We should not let our disappointments and disagreements (even sharp disagreements) with some of the new administration’s appointments and policies blind us to the bigger picture. Great changes have taken place in the last 100 days. Obama’s “springtime of possibilities” has truly sprung. Though struggle, even greater changes will happen.

Now is the time to “let a thousand flowers of united grassroots struggle bloom.” We are in a new era. The impossible is possible now.

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