Friday, July 04, 2008

"New and Not Improved"

This is the appropriate title of today's editorial in the New York Times, criticizing Obama for his reversal on several major issues since winning the primary:
We are not shocked when a candidate moves to the center for the general election. But Mr. Obama’s shifts are striking because he was the candidate who proposed to change the face of politics, the man of passionate convictions who did not play old political games.
Since winning the primary in early June, Obama has indeed repositioned himself on major issues in significant ways: Fundraising; public-finance; interest groups, for now in the form of faith-based initiatives; and illegal wiretapping. The Times also expresses its dismay with his position on gun control and the death penalty.

While it is typical for Democrats to tack right after the primary to resposition themselves to win the general election, the debate about Obama's reversal is more heated than usual since he portrayed himself as a new type to politician who would transcend the old ways.

But his shift in positions so far suggests that he might actually be what some were worried about he was all along: A centrist camouflaged as a transformational politician, and not the other way around!

Also see yesterday's post on this. This is a debate that will go on for a long time as people try to figure out who Obama "really" is. There can be no doubt that he is new; but is he really different? Or perhaps better: How different can a candidate for the US Presidency in 2008 really be?

Perhaps he could allow himself the 'luxury' of portraying himself as being 'above' if not 'beyond' politics-as-usual only during the primary; or perhaps he even had to in order to win it. Be that as it may, it is more than ironic for such a shrewd politician as Obama to pretend to be post-political. To be political means, among many other things, to take a position. One can be as little post-political as one can be post-positional, as it were.

Whether you like it or not, and whether you know it or not, you are always already positioned, simply by virtue of being in the world. One cannot not have a position. We all occupy a location in space and time, and more importantly in society and culture, including the economy, politics, law, education, what have you. More often than not, it seems that where we stand depends on where we sit ... - but that is, I was going to say, a different debate, until it occured to me that it actually is quite relevant.

In order to win the presidency, there is a certain number of things you have to do. But by doing all these things, chances are you come to conform almost totally with the system. Perhaps the system has come to function in such a way that it only allows those to run successfully who don't fundamentally challenge and threaten it, as commentators such as Alexander Cockburn have suggested. It should come as no surprise that candidates such as Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich never make it very far. But if the contemporary US political system operates in such a way that it almost automatically and necessarily co-opts the candidates, how can it be changed? How can you lead if you have to follow the demands of the system most of the time? How can you change the system if even trying to do so is precisely what will make you loose?

In any case, if you don't assume and defend your positions, especially in politics, others will do it for you - and that's of course the last thing you want to happen, especially in the midst of a campaign. So whenever you communicate, make decisions, take measures, allocate resources, vote, etc., you position yourself, for everyone to see in bright daylight. And now we can see how Obama is repositioning himself. Do actions still speak louder than words? And what is the relationship between rhetoric and action, between slogans and decisions, between words and deeds? Does it still make sense to talk about 'integrity' in this context?

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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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