Thursday, July 03, 2008

Quo vadis, Obama?

In his column of June 30, 2008, noting how similar the current election feels to those of 1980 and 1992 Paul Krugman reflected on a set of important and related questions regarding Obama's "real" agenda: If elected, would be "a Ronald Reagan of the left," bringing about significant change, or "just another Clinton"? Is he moving to the right, as he has done in recent weeks, because he thinks he has to in order to win big, which would then allow him to bring about major change? Or does his "triangulation and poll-driven politics" actually make it harder for him to win? What is the relationship between how a candidate campaigns and how he governs? And perhaps most importantly, is Obama a "transformational figure behind a centrist facade," like so many progressive activists would like to believe, or actually a centrist behind a transformational facade. How much is substance and how much is style?

To these important questions, Krugman tentatively suggests a few answers. They are also relevant for progressive strategy and the ongoing debate on how best to nudge Obama to the left, difficult as this is likely to be, especially if he doesn't move much by himself.

For now, Krugman concludes, Obama looks more like Clinton, and pretty centrist. The parallels between Clinton and Obama are indeed noteworthy: Projecting the image of transcending traditional divides; not more but smarter government; the economic plan; etc.

Krugman concludes:

In any case, what about after the election? The Reagan-Clinton comparison suggests that a candidate who runs on a clear agenda is more likely to achieve fundamental change than a candidate who runs on the promise of change but isn’t too clear about what that change would involve.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Mr. Obama really is a centrist, after all.

One thing is clear: for Democrats, winning this election should be the easy part. Everything is going their way: sky-high gas prices, a weak economy and a deeply unpopular president. The real question is whether they will take advantage of this once-in-a-generation chance to change the country’s direction. And that’s mainly up to Mr. Obama.

Indeed, there has been the concern all along that Obama raises very high expectations in trying to win the election, which he then can't meet once in office, because of the power structure he enters, and because of the very bad shape this country is in. I wish I could share Krugman's optimism that it is "mainly up to Obama" which direction this country takes. I am afraid that even a very progressive Obama could only do so much.

This is precisely where progressive strategy comes in. While for electoral strategists getting Obama elected is the ultimate goal of strategy, in our understanding it is, if not the beginning, at best one component. For immediately, the question becomes: Now what? How to move Obama to the left? This raises the crucial strategic question of how best to articulate what we call movement-electoral strategies to get progressives elected, and then, once in office, how to hold them accountable to a progressive agenda.

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