Barack Obama arrived on the political scene with a smile as beautiful as salvation itself, like a visitor from an idealized future, one where the races have combined to a golden hue, sent here to show us the way. Of course people fell in love with him. Yet now we see Obama drawn into the great room where the Democratic/Corporate establishment dwells, and the door is slowly closing behind him. This is not how it was supposed to be.
Obama has just opted out of public financing, the first presidential candidate to do so since 1972. NewsHour’s Mark Shields, keeper of the flame for all that is good in the Democratic Party, called it “a flip-flop of epic proportions,” noting that Obama’s argument about a GOP financial advantage was “bogus.” Shields even said it raised issues of Obama’s “character.” The New York Times editorialized that 2008 may now be “the year public financing died.” In seizing a tactical advantage, Obama has handed an enormous strategic victory to corporate power.
Many progressives will argue that Obama, having raised huge amounts from small contributors, is akin to getting public financing, which liberates the candidate from dependence on corporate support. Yet just the opposite is happening. In the three weeks since Hillary Clinton fell upon her sword, Obama has lurched far to the right. Consider:
– Obama announced a new financial team of supply-side economists led by Jason Furman, famous for declaring that it would be “damaging to working people” if Wal-Mart were to raise its wages and benefits. Obama had recently criticized Clinton for serving on the Wal-Mart board, declaring, “I won’t shop there.” In the Audacity of Hope, he sympathized with “Wal-Mart associates who hold their breath every single month in the hope they’ll have enough money to support their children.”
-When questioned in a Fortune interview about his promise to renegotiate NAFTA to protect workers and the environment, Obama replied, “Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified.”
– In a close congressional primary race in Georgia, Obama endorsed a troglodyte incumbent – a “Bush enabler” – over an exemplary progressive insurgent.
– In a speech to the Israeli lobby, he moved to the right of Israel’s government by ruling out negotiations with Hamas. A day earlier, Obama had told Cuban exile groups that he would only sit down with Raul Castro if the exiles had a seat at the table, a precondition that Cuba will never agree to.
– Obama refused to criticize recent Israeli war maneuvers and accompanying threats to launch massive air attacks on Iran. He failed to even urge restraint.
– Just as a move was growing in the Senate to strip the House-passed Telecom bill of its immunity provisions, Obama declared his support for the House version. Obama’s opposition to immunity had been our best hope to learn whose phones and emails had been wiretapped by the Bush administration, and to punish those Telecom companies that assisted this massive criminal enterprise.
Is he lost to us? Was he ever ours to lose?
Progressives were all too eager to overlook the warning signs in Obama’s brief career, his support for the Patriot Act, for nuclear power, his vote against limiting credit card interest to 30%, his calls for increased defense spending, and his equivocation on full withdrawal from Iraq. These decisions were mere matters of political expediency, we were assured, not to be taken seriously.
Yet how can political expediency explain Obama’s retreat on NAFTA? Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are all in play – how many of those voters have been broken on the wheel of NAFTA? Those who contend that the real Obama will suddenly emerge after the election to overturn an imperial foreign policy and to bring justice to the home front, might be advised not to hold their breath.
Obama desperately needs pressure from the left, and he is amenable to pressure. Once we on the left agree that this analysis is correct, then we must choose the correct strategy.
So far, blind support of Obama has yielded the same kind of benefits that we got from John Kerry. With the united left in his pocket, Kerry went from a declared “anti-war” candidate to a thoroughly hawkish one, berating Bush for wimping out in the face of massive civilian casualties in Falluja, and promising to win the Iraq war. Unconditional support for the Democratic nominee is unconditional surrender, with all the utter powerlessness that the terms imply.
As one alternative, we can complain, write and blog, for all these have their place. But we are all too good at talking to ourselves, and disparate efforts without a focus are all too easily dismissed.
We must consider support for Ralph Nader’s campaign. Nader has been as high as six percent in recent national polls, something he has achieved with only modest support from left intellectuals, and virtually no recognition by corporate media.
Yet Google has announced its intent to hold at least one presidential debate, and has set the bar at 10% support. It is hard to imagine Obama or McCain snubbing Google, and the prospect of such a debate carries more promise than anything the left has seen in recent memory.
For those who claim that Nader can only hurt Obama, I suggest the opposite is true. Gore and Kerry were both doomed by the accurate perception that they were corporate to the core. People knew in their gut that these guys were not on their side. (In 2004, Kerry fled from a living wage initiative in Florida; it passed nearly three to one.) It must also be remembered that in 2000, when Nader was at 5%, a full 15% believed he was the best candidate. More importantly, Nader’s positions are not just majoritarian ones, most enjoy overwhelming public support. Full military and corporate withdrawal from Iraq, major reductions in the defense budget, a crackdown on corporate crime, single-payer health care, massive investment in renewable energy and conservation, a living wage – these would provide a platform that would send Obama to a historic victory, and all are available for the taking.
Those who insist we must work only within the Democratic Party have clearly failed to hold Obama to his promise. We must get outside the box. Obama needs a great big push, and we are the only ones who can give it to him.
GREGORY KAFOURY is a trial lawyer and political activist in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at email@example.com.