Four experts discuss the significance of Obamaâs presidential win and some of the challenges that lie ahead for U.S. progressive movements.
(Editor’s note: These comments were excerpted from a panel discussion held November 6, 2008, two days after the election, at the Institute for Policy Studies. You can watch a video of the event.)
I think most of us are feeling something different than we've ever felt in the wake of a previous presidential election. And I'm speaking not as a partisan, nor even as a member of IPS, but as a mother, as a woman, as a resident of this country, as a resident of the world, really. I feel very different. I feel changed, somehow. I think that President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama has revealed to our country and to the world that what it means to be United-States American is something much different today, November 6th, 2008, than it was on Monday, November 3rd, 2008. Though it was the struggle and the blood of generations beforehand that really achieved that redefinition, it's remained largely hidden until he revealed it with his victory Tuesday night.
The new U.S. American is Black; the new U.S. American is mixed-race. The new U.S. American has a Muslim name. The new American is raised by a single mother. The new American is brilliant, and vibrant and decent and grassroots and internationalist and beautiful; and the new U.S. American, I think, inspires us all. And I contend that an Obama presidency, whatever challenges it may hold, whatever disappointments we may feel, it does make us all better U.S. Americans.
The promises of an Obama administration are great. They range from ending the war in Iraq to closing Guantánamo Bay, to achieving universal health care and reversing racial and economic inequality. And Obama has achieved such a decisive victory that there is a clear mandate for progressive change. Obama's progressive credentials may be less clear, and our panelists will enlighten us on the possibility of realizing these promises.
But one last thing before we turn to them: I do feel compelled to highlight at least one egregious assault on civil liberties that took place with this election. The constitutional civil right of women and men to marry freely whomever they choose was ripped from the citizens of California and from us all by the hate- and ignorance-based California Proposition 8 banning gay marriage. Similar measures exist in other states, and Arizona and Florida passed similar ballot measures. But in California, an existing constitutional right was taken away, and that continues the status of separate but equal with regard to sexual orientation, and that diminishes us all. And affirmative action was successfully banned in a ballot initiative in Nebraska and maybe so in Colorado. So as we rightfully and righteously celebrate the first African-American president, let's not be lulled into the notion that the struggle for human rights, be they racial, ethnic, age, disability, or LGBT, has been won. But we took a huge step forward as a nation and we deserve to celebrate that.
—Karen Dolan, who moderated this panel, is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Director of the Cities for Progress and Cities for Peace projects based there.
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Like many African Americans, my stomach was in absolute knots on the evening of November 4th, not knowing what was going to happen. I don't trust the white electorate and I didn't believe the polls, so I didn't know what exactly was going to happen. I was watching this with absolute disbelief. I made a point of not sending in an absentee ballot but standing in line — I had to have the experience of touching the machine. Doing the ballot thing just wasn't going to work. I had to go in there and stand two-and-a-half hours in line with hundreds of other African Americans, get in there and touch that machine and just grin like a Cheshire cat.
And so when this unfolded, I was in utter disbelief. And like many other people I've talked to, I danced around the house — and I can't dance. I cried, I screamed. I got on the phone and called many of my closest friends and comrades, and called my parents, my daughter and we all screamed together because it was just such an unbelievable moment. And I'm not going to lose that moment, so don't worry.
However, now we have to face some real challenges, it seems to me. So we have to begin with understanding that — and for this audience, this is obvious — this man is not a savior. Now, I say that because in other audiences, he is. And this becomes very important at the level of political work, when we're talking about holding him accountable. Particularly among African Americans, there's going to be incredible amount of defensiveness for Obama for quite some time. The historic importance of this election can't be overstated, and for that reason there will be many people that'll watch things happen that they do not agree with, but they're going to be very silent and they're going to be upset with us that raise criticisms. And that has to be factored in when we're going forward. It should not mean that we're silent, but it means that many of us are going to catch hell. And many of us are going to be hit with the idea that we should extend a longer honeymoon period to let things come into place, let Obama work some things out.
John Podesta being the head of the transition committee, Rahm Emanuel being the chief of staff, and rumors about Larry Summers being considered for Treasury Secretary do not make me feel that warm fuzzy feeling. It starts to feel like a Clinton re-tread.
—Bill Fletcher, Jr., is the Director of Field Services and Education for the American Federation of Government Employees, the executive editor of BlackCommentator.com, and a Senior Scholar of the Institute for Policy Studies.
I think we need to be smart about how we fight. IPS is putting out a called Mandate for Change, and it has essays from many of us on this panel and others, and it tries to lay out an argument for a different America and a different agenda. And part of it — and this is part of our interpretation of what happened on Tuesday — is it's not just all the wonderful things that Karen just said, it was a rejection of two big ideological frames that Republicans have been pushing for 30 years. On the economy, the neoliberal, market fundamentalist, “Washington Consensus” that markets can solve most problems, that's gone. And the neoconservative notion that the U.S., through reckless unilateralism, can create democracy around the world and be a force for good, that's gone.
Part of our bigger job as progressives, to end those eras and replace them with new frames and new arguments about the role of government, about the role of civil society. Those two ideologies are failed but what replaces them is not yet certain. And there will be a fight within the Democratic Party about what replaces them. That’s the big picture.
We're going to have four giant fights, and our job is to do what the Left did under Roosevelt's administration. It is to pull the debate in our direction. The big fights, I think, of the next year are the economy, poverty and inequality, war and peace, and health care, and so just a word on each.
On the economy: already we're going to have a big fight in a week and a half. There will be a debate on the stimulus package in the Congress. Most progressive economists and not-so-progressive economists think it needs to be big, that we've already done most of the things you need to do to get an economy going; we now need a fiscal stimulus. Most of them are saying it should be $300 to $400 billion and Nancy Pelosi seems to now, from the latest I'm hearing, have settled on $150 billion, and Obama's talking about $125 billion. So we're about to have not quite what I was hoping we would have in two weeks, but we'll have a big debate about the future of the economy. We really need to pull together coalitions that are pushing for a bigger stimulus, for a greener stimulus. I’m feeling and this is a challenge in our progressive ranks, the lack of harmony between our greener wing and our bluer wing.
Obama made a big deal out of poverty being a big problem that needs to be fixed. The challenge I would throw, and I think we at IPS throw out to all of us doing that work, is can't we make inequality the center of this, not just poverty? In other words, can't the goal be bringing the top down as well as bringing the bottom up? Barack Obama opened the door to this. His tax plan raises taxes a bit on the richest 5% and lowers it on the other 95%.
Third one, war and peace — and there's a lot of people here who are thinking about this — but I think our goals are to end the Iraq War more quickly, to be very vocal on Afghanistan and try to end that war, and three, to cut military spending as part of the new national security frame in a country where there won't be that much money, so we can offer money from the military. We put out a report from IPS last year called Just Security. It argues you can cut military spending by $250 billion by doing three things: ending the Iraq War, cutting a third of our bases overseas, and getting rid of 12 obsolete weapons systems. Can't we do this now and offer $250 billion for the green economic stimulus or the health care plan?
Finally, on health care, I think there's the feeling in the Democratic Party circles that that's the first big fight that Obama has to win. And I think there's going to be heavy pressure on progressives to compromise a bunch and just let Obama get a win. It's going to be hard for him to get a win in a context where everybody's saying there's no money.
So I think our job in each of these four is to pull the debate further to the left than it would be, and to can come up with better than what Obama is going to put forward. It will work only if we are more unified than we usually are, only if we build new coalitions that we usually don't, coalitions across race, across class, across the silos of labor, environment, women, etc. that divide us. And I think there's a real willingness here that we're going to have to work differently for that to work.
—John Cavanagh is the Director of the Institute for Policy Studies. He and his partner Robin Broad recently published a book, Development Redefined: How the Market Met its Match.
I want to be happy about the things that happened in this election, that our fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers made possible as progressives.
We can be proud, in a country where four of the first six presidents were Virginia slave-owners — which later became the home of the Confederacy — we not only elected an African-American guy, but he carried Virginia, miracle of miracles. I mean, the wheel turns.
We put an exclamation-point ending on the Reagan-Bush era. We didn’t put a stake in their heart; they'll come back. They'll get up off the ground like vampires and they'll come back again, but the Katrina survivors got a measure of justice and their ideology is in big trouble right now, which is why they're semi-nationalizing banks.
We can take pride in not only the massive African-American vote, we can take great pride in the young people — and who expanded the vote for young people? Our progressive forefathers and foremothers. Who fought for the rights of Latinos to vote — who, like young people, voted more than two-to-one for Barack Obama, and that of course was after every pundit in Washington saying Latinos would never vote for Blacks, which had to be the dumbest statement ever uttered on television by anyone who had ever met a mayor of a big city in America — hardly any was elected without the votes of both African Americans and Latinos.
Latinos also rejected the anti-immigrant policies of fear. They fought back. They rejected the Republican Party. Frankly, the combination of a huge youth vote for the Democrats and a huge Latino vote for the Democrats is a long-term scary signal for the Republican Party, of which I’m very happy. If demography is politics, then that demography is a very good thing.
We can be proud of the slow but true maturity of white people in America. Granted, we’re a little slower than most races, but we're getting there. We can be proud of the labor unions of America. James Carville had a funny line, which he used years ago, which is Pennsylvania's like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. That's not true. It's a funny line, but it's not true, and the reason it's not true because of the labor unions of America. If you don't believe me, go check the returns of central Pennsylvania compared to Alabama, where white people are still lost in the death grip of the Confederacy, for crying out loud. But in places where we have labor unions, they were able to give reasons for voters to overcome their racial fears. And we owe our labor union brothers and sisters thanks for that, because that was pretty profound.
Obama carried the Northeast by 20 points, the Midwest by 10, the West by 10; we lost the South by 20. And since every Black in the South just about voted for him, that means the weak point for the nation is white Southerners. But that's also a huge problem for the Republican Party, where now almost half of their U.S. Senators are Southern. I mean, they are trapped in their little cul-de-sac, in the white, culturally fearful South, and they're going to have a hard time getting out of that, which is a good thing, politically.
So the bottom line here is I'm going to savor this. I'm going to encourage you to do the same. There will be disappointments later on, but there'll be time for that later. To me, this campaign was like a great book that you're reading, and you have that weird feeling where you want to hurry up and see what happens but you don't want it to end — which of course is a paradox. I remember when I read Man's Hope or Grapes of Wrath, and I just couldn't put them down. And at the end of it, I thought God, that was so good, and I was happy-sad that I was done. And that's the way this campaign is. This campaign has been like a great novel about America and it had a happy ending Tuesday. It was a good ending. And it was because of the work that progressives in the past, and some of us in this room, did on things that we care about, and we should not let that go.
—Steve Cobble, a founder of Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), served as the political director for the National Rainbow Coalition, and is an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.