Organizing for Obama

The Democratic primary has entered its penultimate phase, and anticipation continues to rise for the Mega-March showdown, touted the most significant moment of the nominating contest so far. Depending on which side of March 4th you are reading this, either Barack Obama has solidified his frontrunner status heading towards the convention or Hillary Clinton has surprised the pundits yet again by pulling even (precipitating a major and potentially ugly showdown at the convention itself).

Few elections have triggered as intense a period of reflection within Americans of all persuasions. Indeed, countrywide, the soul of the American nation is being examined with little consensus on which way the country is headed. The candidates themselves have framed the debate in visionary terms, with Hillary offering a comfortably rehashed vision of 1990s era Clintonian Triumphalism and Obama promising a return to Camelot. In Hillary's world, our days will be safely filled debating the undoubtedly spurious charges brought against her by critics, just as we did for Bill's entire second term in office. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, a political savant whose learning curve on the campaign has stunned even his most adamant supporters, offers a blurry vision of his own, strangely drawing on the romantic affiliation with the Kennedy years that seems to linger deep inside the American psyche, despite JFK's rather limited (both in time and accomplishment) period in office.

Let me acknowledge one thing from the beginning—and for some of you, that may be enough to dismiss anything else I write here. I have been working with the Obama campaign through a grassroots effort known as South Asians for Obama (SAFO). I have no direct personal relationship to Obama. In fact, I have never even seen him live. But I have volunteered my time and money for over a year to help this man get elected. And at this point, when he may pull off arguably the greatest upset in Democratic party politics, I continue to support his candidacy actively.

But if you are still reading, know that my support for Obama remains intimately tied to my own aspirations for this country. Put simply, I support Obama out of a conviction that his election can be a boon to the progressive movement. I believe that progressives have a particular responsibility to ensure that our vision for a post-Bush era is actually given the credence it deserves.

One thing the Democratic party has gotten right during this campaign season has been moving its position to the political left. From immigration to labor, the Big Three contenders for the Democratic nomination sought to stitch together coalitions out of the various factions that have long tussled for control over the future of the party. A competitive field required the candidates to maneuver between the broad range of views that comprise the modern coalitional version of the Democratic party. Instead of moving towards the center to capture the mythical swing voters during the general election, a prolonged Democratic contest has forced each of the candidates to carefully pitch their visions to their traditionally Democratic constituencies, many of which have moved significantly to the left of the recent Democratic leadership.

This leftward tilt was not a given. Dennis Kucinich and even Mike Gravel (okay, at times)—whose campaigns were taken only slightly less seriously than Stephen Colbert's—openly attacked the conservative shift in Democratic politics in the early debates, helping nudge the Big Three away from the moderate vision of previous Democratic hopefuls. Once the field was whittled down to three, John Edwards' steady focus on a domestic populist agenda, pushed the candidates to debate their positions from a center-left vantage point. Edwards' departure cemented this populist terrain as both Clinton and Obama rushed to garner his considerable support from the white working class. It is important to understand the nature of this shift. For the past twenty years the Democratic party has languished in a sullenly center-right nether area. The effect of the primaries has been to push the remaining Democratic candidates rather close to an American version of a European or Canadian center-left coalition. After two failed attempts at recapturing the White House, the main Democratic presidential candidates have finally disavowed the centrist path charted during the Bill Clinton era in a way that both Al Gore and John Kerry failed to do during their own runs for the top job in American politics.

If Clinton and Obama now seem similarly positioned, this was the result of the leftward pull of the protracted primary contest. Electoral competitions tend to dull the shine of otherwise interesting characters, causing many to question whether there are any relevant differences between the main contenders. The real question for progressives, then, is this: Which of the candidates is most likely to help enact even a portion of the radical reforms necessary throughout all branches of government to help pull us out of our current malaise?

I don't want to dwell too much on the Hillary Clinton question, but I will point out one thing that I think is important to keep in mind, and which clearly distinguishes the candidates in my mind. To win his first term in office, Bill Clinton moved the Democratic party to a point further to the right than it has ever occupied in the 20th century. The "triangulation" strategy he adopted signaled to the business community and other conservative constituencies that the Democratic party was amenable to embracing Republican ideals, regardless of the damage done to our most powerless populations; this is the most pernicious legacy of his administration. Indeed, the Bush presidency, with its own version of triangulation referred to as "compassionate conservatism" essentially trod along the same center-right path that the House of Clinton built.

It is important to recognize this legacy of the Clinton years and to question the role that Hillary played in it. As much as she has attempted to move to the left, she cannot change the fact that her engagement with the corporate sector has largely shaped her fortunes, as well as the fortunes of her family. Some may say it is unfair to tie Hillary to this legacy, but it is one that she has embraced herself and this should make us deeply suspicious of what her presidency would really look like.

A comparable focus on Obama's political roots is also warranted, and for me at least, the result of this examination reinforces my decision to support him. While it is important to recognize that Obama began his career in the world of community activism, it is equally important to keep his presence in politics in context. By all accounts, Obama's devotion to activism in an earlier period in his life was complete. He based his struggle to uplift on common principles of participation, mobilization and dialogue that progressives have long sought to center within America's practice of democracy. And he eventually left the community organizing world on his trajectory upwards through the political ranks.

I say this simply to acknowledge that by stepping into the world of electoral politics, Obama did change—as anyone who makes the leap from community organizing to political campaigns must. But it is important to assess whether his history of engagement with the activist community will translate into increased access to individuals and organizations best able to advocate on behalf of the progressive movement? In short, I believe in Obama's candidacy not for his considerable rhetorical flourish, but rather based on a calculated belief that he will listen to progressives.

In my own work with SAFO in Los Angeles, I have been struck by the campaign's willingness to reach out and work with pre-existing community efforts. This is not just a rhetorical device, but an actual campaign strategy that explains why many have labeled it a movement. And it encourages me that Obama has garnered a reputation for keeping the door open to causes and efforts I truly believe in. More than any other viable presidential candidate in American history, he has reached out to progressives. For example, recently, a group of attorneys who have been defending Guantanamo detainees pro bono and who call themselves "Habeas Lawyers for Obama," released the following statement, "When others stood back, Sen. Obama helped lead the fight in the Senate against the administration's efforts in the fall of 2006 ... and when we were walking the halls of the Capitol trying to win over enough senators to beat back the administration's bill, Sen. Obama made his key staffers and even his offices available to help us."

In the past year of my involvement with SAFO, I have had a chance to gather a selection of opinions from the Latino/a, Black, and Asian communities. Both my Asian and Latino friends have expressed concerns that members of their extended family would not vote for a Black man, despite appreciating a successful immigrant story, one who made it all the way through Harvard Law. From my Black friends, I hear a consistent concern of his attachments to the Oprah-sors and Tyra-nts of the world and a healthy skepticism of his "man of the people" routine. From all three, I hear real questions on whether America is really willing to let a man of color stand as its president and what that presidency would look like.

Whoever emerges as the next president of the United States will have to answer a basic question. What is America's role in the world? It is a question that has affected every aspect of a post-Reagan America befuddled by the loss of the unifying Cold War bogeyman. Clintonian Triumphalism—fun while it lasted with its DotCom jobs paying my post-college buddies handsomely for riding around their offices on Razor scooters—was never a long-term answer to the question. The presidency of G-Dub has only revealed the incoherency of the Clinton-Gore Era, a fact acknowledged by Al Gore himself who has shifted his focus from the increasingly provincial domain of American politics to bigger, global concerns.

Consolidation can only come when political power combines with grassroots momentum to codify real reforms into law. Hillary was right to note the interactive relationship between Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK did need LBJ, but LBJ probably needed MLK more. She erred in placing the emphasis on LBJ, who sought desperately to legitimate his presidency by grasping for the ethereal sheen emanating from the martyred JFK.

Hillary's praise for LBJ is not surprising as we can all recognize in it the institutional bias that continues to color our interpretations of American historical events, and particularly, the constant excision of community efforts to bring about change. The progressive movement may yet find itself screwed by our own custom-made version of Bill Clinton who, like Obama, once appealed to an earlier generation of center-left constituencies. The key is to recognize that the same Republican criticisms that many of us secretly admired in Bill during his own candidacies—"He smoked weed and listens to jazz!"—did not a progressive make. Instead, it will be up to a broad-based progressive moment to make sure that a presidency of Barack Obama truly lives up to the promise. A progressive moment will not arrive on Election Day. Electing Obama is only a beginning to the real place that we should aspire to. Holding a future President Obama accountable is the responsibility of all of us who understand that while America has been busy trying to change the world, the world has been steadily changing us.

Politically, the Bush presidency has been dismal. But culturally, this has been an interesting time to be an American. This moment has been characterized not by the optimism that pervaded the 1960s, but rather a more cynical recognition of the difficult challenges ahead. The same political retraction triggered by the events of 9/11 has led to an increased vibrancy that spills over into American cultural and civil life, though only rarely has it entered the formal institutional realm of politics. In my mind, the Democratic takeover of Congress, while disappointing thus far, also presaged a shift in the political landscape. Greater engagement across a variety of grassroots organizations by progressively minded folks is starting to bear fruit. While we are certainly nowhere near any promised lands, a real change in American politics is likely. Not a victory in the sense of a revolution, but rather a significant shift in the political institutions of the American state. Faint praise, indeed—listen carefully, it's an oft discordant note, but everywhere you turn you can hear the sounds of an increased confidence brimming out of progressive minds.


Obama's family history, upbringing, and Ivy League education differ markedly from those of African American politicians who launched their careers in the 1960s through participation in the civil rights movement. Expressing puzzlement over questions about whether he is "black enough", Obama told an August 2007 meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists that "we're still locked in this notion that if you appeal to white folks then there must be something wrong". -Steven C. Wyer

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