Barack Obama, President Obama — September 21, 2011 at 12:35 pm

The progressive left didn’t push Obama to the left, he’s been waiting for America to join him there


President Obama’s new-found populist voice has reinvigorated liberals across the country and across the blogosphere. This week, for example, you would hardly recognize the Daily Kos vaunted Recommended List. Former Obama-bashers are thrilled that the president is coming on strong, naming names and shaming the shameful in his fight to get his new jobs bill passed. Example after example of this New Obama are being praised and touted. Some of them are suddenly interested in donating to Democrats again.

Many of the liberal commentators in the mediasphere are claiming victory. “See?” they say. “All of our efforts are paying off. President Obama is finally listening to us. Our incessant cries and drumbeats that he is a corporatist shill for Big Banks, Big Oil, and Big Business have finally brought him to his senses.”

Lost in this conversation is the reality that Barack Obama has stood for “the other 98%” for his entire adult life. Even a cursory review of his biography shows that he has been a champion for the poor, for unions, and for the middle class for as long as he has been in politics. But Barack Obama is also a pragmatist. He learned his community organizing from a group called the Gamaliel Foundation, and was hired by a man named Mike Kruglik. I have attended trainings by Kruglik and wrote a piece called “I Want POWER and I Will Be Ruthless” that describes it. Here’s a snippet of that post:

The Gamaliel Ladder is basically composed of Values & Faith as the core ideals from which all of our actions are based. These are the things we’re willing to stand up to defend.

In order to achieve our goals, we must grasp the reins of POWER, the second rung of the Gamaliel Ladder. Yes, POWER. Without power, we have nothing because we will be able to accomplish nothing. We are told that “power corrupts” and many of us have been hurt by the wanton use of power. But this is because the power was wielded by people with different core values than us.

We must use power ruthlessly to achieve our goals, to further our own SELF-INTEREST, the third rung on the Gamaliel Ladder. And we must use the self-interests of others to get them to work on our behalf. Note that I use the phrase “self-interest” and not “selfishness”. Self-interest is the advancement of oneself IN CONCERT with others. Selfishness is the advancement of oneself at the EXPENSE of others.

The concepts of power, self-interest and ruthlessness have been cast in such a way as to make those who have no power shy away from trying to obtain power. But the time has come for us to shed our ambivalence about obtaining power and to change the world in ways that further the Progressive Liberal agenda. We can do this with no reservation and we can do this ruthlessly because our actions are based on values that most of the country agrees with:

1-to-1 relationships
Community-based economies
Bottom-up management
Safety and Security for our citizens
Prosperity for everyone
Solidarity with the oppressed
Human dignity
Children and families
Equal Opportunity for all

The Gamaliel process for choosing issues to work on involves two key components:

1. Can we win it?
2. Does it build coalitions and strengthen the organization?

These are the basic building blocks, the very basis from which President Obama approaches every major intitiative he gets involved in. He is a pragmatist. He will not get involved in battles he does not believe he can win and he will approach them in a manner that builds coalitions and strengthens his position in future battles.

The key part of this recipe is coalition-building. In this country, particularly at the level the president operates, nothing can be accomplished by working alone. When you look at every major piece of legislation that was supported by the president and that was eventually passed, it was only by getting people from all sides of the issue to get on board that he was able to achieve victory.

Our country has never been more polarized politically than it is right now. Achieving consensus between disparate groups has never been more difficult, particularly in Congress. When you look at what the Obama administration has achieved legislatively, every one of the achievements involved getting the American public behind it and encouraging them to pressure their representatives in Congress to move in the right direction. Health insurance reform. Wall Street reform. Ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In order to accomplish this, the American public must be convinced that it is important enough to pay attention to, to act on, and to FIGHT for.

The “new” populist Obama we are seeing today is not new; it has always been there. The emergence of this “New Obama” is simply a matter of timing. He needed to wait until mainstream America woke up to the realities of what the Republicans and other conservatives in this country are doing and what they represent. It has taken two and half years for most of America to realize the Republicans aren’t acting on behalf of average Americans. They (and, frankly, some of their Democratic colleagues) are acting on behalf of those with the most money and power in this country. Big Banks, Big Oil, Big Business and Big Wealth. To the extent that these politicians have power, they derive it from the resources, mainly cash, coming from these groups.

So, for the past two and half years, President Obama has, often quietly, fed them lengths of rope. A concession here. A backtrack there. Compromise after compromise with hostage-taking conservatives bent on making sure he doesn’t succeed in anything that he does, even if it harms the country. And it does harm the country; we see that in spades today. Nobody who is paying any attention at all can continue to believe that Republicans are acting responsibly. When they defend to their last gasp the massive tax breaks given to wealthy individuals and large corporations or the federal tax monies given as subsidies to the most profitable companies in the history of civilization, their motives become crystal clear.

Now, with the impeccable sense of timing and stategic purpose & action that Barack Obama is known for, he is reeling that rope back in. Only now the Republicans have it so tightly wound around their necks that they are being strangled by it. Americans now see them for the obstructionist, self-serving partisans that they are. Now that the administration is calling on Americans to rise up and demand fairness, it is a clarion call backed by months and months of clear evidence that what he is doing is right and proper and decent and fair. It’s what Americans want and, with the economy still struggling while the wealthy sit on their money and refuse to invest or hire, people are angry. The president has helped them to finally focus their anger on the right groups.

Liberals have been claiming for a long time now that the Obama administration was taking them for granted; that their support was presumed and, because of this, that President Obama is ignoring their agenda. Part 1 of that belief is true. Their support IS presumed. An August Gallup poll showed that President Obama enjoys a 72% approval rating among liberals. But, Part 2? Not so much. It’s not the liberals that President Obama is or has been pitching to. It’s middle America. It’s the people who don’t always pay attention but can be motivated to go to the polls if they have a reason to. It’s all of those people who, in 2008, said, “I’ve voted Republican my whole life but this year, I’m voting for a Democrat.”

In other words, President Obama has been slowly and quietly moving the conversation of America to his framing. He has done all of the things he had to do to get his initiatives passed but he has also given the Republicans a broad stage on which to act out their true intent in full view of the American voters. President Obama didn’t move left. He isn’t finally doing what progressives have told him to do all along. He is executing perfect timing in a much broader strategy — a strategy which brings America to his position which is far to the left of today’s Republicans, a divide which is only growing deeper and wider with every utterance of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell and every other blathering tea partier in our country.

The talking heads on the left can claim all the credit they want. At the end of the day, I don’t give a damn how we got here. But their contention that they are responsible for it denies the reality that pragmatic progressives (“pragprogs” as I call them) have know from the start. This president takes a much longer view than they do. He’s patient. He’s strategic. And he is a true progressive that values PROGRESS over grandstanding.

All photos by Anne C. Savage. Please do not reuse without permission. Seriously. I mean that. Ask first.

  • :) Claiming credit is the “progressives”‘s passive-aggressive way of refusing to give Obama any credit.

    Obama is literally The Devil to “progressives”. God may be operationally defined as that which receives all of the credit and none of the blame. For “progressives”, Obama is PRECISELY the opposite.

  • samcdc

    What does the PL have going for them?  That certain Audacity of Arrogance that leads them to believe that they are smarter, wiser, more astute, more politically savvy, more (insert your own quality here) than President Obama.

    It is best summarized by the Michael Moore/Bill Maher racist attack: “When I voted for Obama, I thought I voted for the Black Man but instead I got the White Man.”  So now the PL want to take credit for what was the President’s strategy all along.  Not surprising.  What he was doing was as plain as could be, unless you willingly blinded yourself to reality.

    • kefauver

      “What does the PL have going for them?  That certain Audacity of Arrogance that leads them to believe that they are smarter, wiser, more astute, more politically savvy, more (insert your own quality here) than President Obama.”

      And when they apply their “political expertise” to the real world, they fail miserably. I think they went 1 for 27 in House and Senate elections last fall. They’re also good at getting conned out of their money by fake progressives like Jane Hamsher and Adam Greene. Their PACs might as well be their own little personal expense accounts. 

  • japa21

    Well said.  Those that viewed him as a centrist or worse have always been wrong.  But he knows this country does not view itself as progressive, even though progressive values are frequently held by the majority.  He is the ultimate pragmatic progressive.  The reality is that, even he is reelected and the Congress has Dem majorities in both houses, he still won;t get everything through that he would like.  The change he and most progressives woudl like to see happen requires a change in the basic mind set of this country.  He is helpign to create that change, but it is a long slog.

  • Eclectablog, this is a brilliant post. Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I had been thinking something along the same lines this morning , after I heard some of the PL commentary over the last couple of days. There’s been this almost palpable struggle by some of them to minimize this President’s achievement with ending DADT, with taking a strong stance on Jobs and Taxing the Rich. The meme is , “We made him do it”. I’m not sure that a lot of these folks realize that “we” almost lost it! In “our” demoralization, endless disappointment, “we” have been doing everything “we” could to sabotage our own President. 

    We see how that strategy has worked for Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states. I’ll take Obama’s strategy any day of the week!

    • Thanks so much, Erica. I appreciate your kind words.

  • tienle

    Wow, Eclectablog…this is a stunning bit of writing.  Very poetic, yet direct and persuasive.  Talent = 10  I don’t think anyone has come close to making this point as elegantly as you have.  Thank you.

    • Well, that’s very flattering. Thank you so much.

  • Whatisworking

    I have been working with the “” movement which is headed by Van Jones. the goal is to bring President Obama a movement he can lead. Over the August recess they held hundreds of protests at Republican offices. they also developed a contract for the American dream. I would encourage folks to support this movement.

    To hear Van Jones describe the movement and read 2 articles about the group, visit this page

  • rikyrah

    this rocks, man. absolutely rocks!!

    totally on point.

  • I am convinced that when “internet progressives” and their ilk look at what issues to “work on,” the first question asked is “Can we win it?” and the issue is taken on whenever that answer is “no.”

    • doug r

      Too true.

  • Will

    We need to put you and Glenn Greenwald in the same room. This is a well written piece on domestic policy, but I imagine he’d have something to say to you about Obama’s expansion of domestic surveillance, drone attacks on civilian populations abroad, failure to close Guantanamo (remember that??), and unconditional support of the systematically racist Israeli regime. What’s your perspective on Obama’s civil liberties and foreign policy record?

    • I don’t generally have much to say about foreign policy (including when Bush was president) because I don’t think any of us have all the info we would need to comment intelligently about it.
      I’m not a big fan of using drones because they aren’t precise enough to avoid civilian casualties. They also make it too easy to “go to war”. When you are sending in live humans, it adds a new level of complexity and makes you think it through more thoroughly, I think.
      Obama didn’t fail to close Gitmo, btw. Congress wouldn’t find it and that includes many Dems.

  • cryingliberty

    Chris, your post is very astute, well-written, and topical – and while it makes me think about the overall strategy Obama has been committed to since the beginning of his presidency, it also makes me concerned. 

    The “we made him do it” element mentioned in the above comments, I think, comes from a segment of the population that has been continually ignored, abused, pounded upon, legislated against, and vilified in public discourse ever since Reagan, and possibly before – so I think some of that feeling stems from someone in the public eye finally seeming to advocate for what they have been clamoring for, and that segment of the population wants to finally stand up and be able to say “we managed to get our voices heard” as opposed to listening to politicians blather about how they want to help the poor and disenfranchised.

    Those poor and disenfranchised, a rapidly growing segment of our economy, continually feel as though their voice is never heard. As someone who fits the definition of working poor, I definitely feel like my feelings on the direction government should go are not only being ignored, they are being acted upon in reverse. I’m certainly not convinced that Michigan is moving in a direction I’d like to see it go politically. I feel like our elected officials pay us lip service with speeches and platitudes, and then go do whatever is going to pad their bank accounts or the bank accounts of their wealthiest constituents – and to hell with all else. And the Democrats are just as guilty, if not moreso, than their Republican counterparts of flat-out lying to our faces about what they want to accomplish legislatively – at least, during Obama’s term. At least the Republicans are stubbornly honest about wanting to ensure the dominance of the moneyed elite.I can understand the strategy of giving one’s opponent enough rope to hang themselves with – and if that’s what Obama has truly done, then that will pay dividends come election day for him. But I am concerned that, as with other instances, it will turn into backpedal after backpedal, compromise after compromise, and ultimately, we will be no better off, or heaven forbid, worse.

    The proof, as they say, is in the pudding – and I would very much like to believe the man I voted for in 2008 is playing the world’s longest game of political rope-a-dope with his opponents – but for someone like me who struggles just to get from check to check, my “timeline” is, by necessity, much shorter than his. 

    Barack Obama doesn’t have to worry about whether he’s going to have enough money to pay his electric bill, or whether his check will clear in time for him to pay his credit card bill on time, or whether payday falls on the right date so that rent isn’t late.

    I do.

    And I, likely along with the other 15% of Americans who are below the official(ly outdated) poverty line at the moment, am quite worried that my own game clock will hit 0:00 before the game clock in Washington does.

  • Great read.  Very thoughtful analysis.  I had never thought of it this way but it seems that the President does position himself wherever consensus is found.  It may not necessarily be what he wants but it is what he can get that moves towards or fulfills his broader goals.  

    Post-racial?  No.  Post-partisan?  No.  Post-non-thinking?  Yes.