The mosaic of Barack Obama’s cabinet picks and top White House staff gives us an overview of what the new president sees as political symmetry for his administration. While it’s too early to gauge specific policies of the Obama presidency, it’s not too soon to understand that “triangulation” is back.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton was adept at placing himself midway between the base of his own party and Republican leaders. As he triangulated from the Oval Office — often polarizing with liberal Democrats on such issues as “free trade,” deregulation, “welfare reform” and military spending — Clinton did well for himself. But not for his party.
During Clinton’s presidency, with his repeated accommodations to corporate agendas, a progressive base became frustrated and demobilized. Democrats lost majorities in the House and Senate after just two years and didn’t get them back. Along Pennsylvania Avenue, numerous left-leaning causes fell by the wayside — victims of a Democratic president’s too-clever-by-half triangulation.
Now, looking at Obama’s choices for key posts, many progressive activists who went all-out for months to get him elected are disappointed. The foreign-policy team, dominated by strong backers of the Iraq invasion, hardly seems oriented toward implementing Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge to “end the mindset that got us into war.” On the domestic side, big-business ties and Wall Street sensibilities are most of the baseline. Overall, it’s hard to argue that the glass is half full when so much is missing.
The progressives who remain eager to project their worldviews onto Obama are at high risk for hazy credulity. Such projection is a chronic hazard of Obamania. Biographer David Mendell aptly describes Obama as “an exceptionally gifted politician who, throughout his life, has been able to make people of wildly divergent vantage points see in him exactly what they want to see.”
But in the long run, an unduly lofty pedestal sets the stage for a fall from grace. Illusions make disillusionment possible.
There’s little point in progressives’ faulting Obama because so much of their vital work remains undone at the grassroots. A longtime Chicago-based activist on the left, Carl Davidson, made the point well when he wrote after the November election that “one is not likely to win at the top what one has not consolidated and won at the base.”
By the same token, we should recognize that Obama’s campaign victories (beginning with the Iowa caucuses) were possible only because of the painstaking work by antiwar activists and other progressive advocates in prior years. To make further progress possible, in electoral arenas and in national policies, the country must be moved anew — from the bottom up.
As his administration gets underway, disappointed progressives shouldn’t blame Barack Obama for their own projection or naivete. He is a highly pragmatic leader who seeks and occupies the center of political gravity. Those who don’t like where he’s standing will need to move the center in their direction.
Obama has often said that his presidential quest isn’t about him nearly as much as it is about us — the people yearning for real change and willing to work for it. If there’s ever a time to take Obama up on his word, this is it.
Crucial issues must be reframed. The national healthcare reform debate, for instance, still lacks the clarity to distinguish between guaranteeing healthcare for all and mandating loophole-ridden insurance coverage for all. With the exception of Rep. John Conyers’ single-payer bill to provide “enhanced Medicare” for everyone in the United States, each major congressional proposal keeps the for-profit insurance industry at the core of the country’s medical-care system.
As for foreign policy, the paradigm of a “war on terror,” more than seven years on, remains nearly sacrosanct. Among its most stultifying effects is the widely held assumption that many more U.S. troops should go to Afghanistan. Rhetoric to the contrary, Obama’s policy focus appears to be fixated on finding a military solution for an Afghan conflict that cannot be resolved by military means. The escalation is set for a centrist disaster.
During his race for the White House, ironically, Obama was fond of quoting Martin Luther King Jr. about “the fierce urgency of now.” But King uttered the phrase in the same speech (on April 4, 1967) that spoke of “a society gone mad on war,” condemned “my own government” as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and declared: “Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now.”
Barack Obama never promised progressives a rose garden. His campaign inspired tens of millions of Americans, raised the level of public discourse and ousted the right wing from the White House. And he has pledged to encourage civic engagement and respectful debate. The rest is up to us.