In 1992, joyous San Franciscans sang "Ding, dong the witch is dead!" in the streets when Bill Clinton was elected to replace George Bush the First. For several months, friends who had spent the 1980s working to support peasant revolutions in Central America and pushing back against Reagan's cuts to safety net programs at home waxed lyrical about what Bill would do for us. I was skeptical.
This time around, many progressives seem ready to look at Barack Obama's Cabinet appointments and conclude the guy conned us. Eight years of Bush-Cheney lies have left us instinctively suspicious of leaders. I'm willing to wait and see. This time I'll urge my friends to calm down and watch with some hope.
My hope that Obama will govern predominantly from the progressive side of things doesn't derive from believing he's a person of the left. He's not. He's a fairly conventional Democratic Party centrist and he never claimed anything else. He touts "bipartisanship" to a degree that seems almost foolish in light of the irrational right wing wreck the Republicans have become. A life of having to convince white people that a Black man need not be a raving revolutionary has marked Obama. He's cautious. I've asked since the Iowa primary whether we could believe that Obama knows there are irreconcilable sides when it comes to the distribution of the goodies of this wealthy society. He certainly tries to act as if sides could always be reconciled.
But I'm not terribly worried that he'll govern from the right, even as he appoints Larry Summers to advise him on the economy, Hillary Clinton to State, and Robert Gates to the Defense (War) slot. His good fortune and ours is that he arrives at a moment when the problems that matter to a centrist -- maintaining U.S. global power and its economic system -- require governing at least mildly progressively.
- I believe Obama will get the U.S. out of Iraq, probably more rapidly and completely than he'd like. The Iraqis are reaching the end of their patience; the U.S. people know that war is a goner and we can't afford it. Bush's "status of forces agreement" will blow away with the administration that framed it. Only God knows what will happen to the Iraqis, but the U.S. will leave.
- I won't be half-surprised if the Afghanistan war also gets wrapped up pretty quickly. It too is an irretrievable policy failure in a small place very far away. "Out" is going to look good as other problems loom.
- The awful potential of asymmetrical warfare, as Mumbai events illustrated this week, means that the last thing any of us need is more failed states -- yet knocking over fragile governments and leaving trashed societies in their wake is all that U.S. military force seems able to accomplish. That reality will drive an Obama administration that cares about U.S. power to look for other forms of influence, less violent ones.
- The other problems that loom are include China, loose nukes, and climate change. All require brains not brawn, even if the goal remains cementing U.S. dominance. Pragmatic necessity is going to force some multilateralism that the right could never accept.
- Getting the economy going will require government intervention, re-regulation and a certain amount of circumscribing the unfettered grasping of the rich. It is also what an Obama administration will be judged on. He's the best politician of his generation -- he'll get something done there that helps more people than it hurts because he has to.
- Some move toward universal healthcare is an economic necessity -- something mildly progressive thus is a political necessity.
- Simply using the government to loot for the rich has become incompatible with maintaining the system. Look for some managerial competence in government because Obama needs that much to attain his goals.
Let's get ready to mobilize to put pressure on him to do the stuff that doesn't fit so easily into his centrist agenda. On that score, worry a lot about whether he is willing to rein in the encroaching surveillance state and limit executive power enough to begin to restore the rule of law. Get ready to push the guy on the divisive stuff: on "don't ask, don't tell", on delivering the Employee Free Choice Act so workers have a better chance to unionize, on passing immigration "reform" that provides a real path to legalization for our undocumented working class. On those things, the Obama administration is going to need a good kick in the pants.
But Obama finds himself in a situation in which completely disappointing the progressive inclinations of his base won't serve either the country's interests as he seems to understand them -- or his own. So let's wait until he does something that materially injures our aspirations before we give up on him. With our pressure, there's a chance he'll come through on some of what we need and hope for. Do we dare to win a few?