How Do We Seize the Obama Moment?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Electric. When Barack Obama receives the Democratic presidential nomination before 75,000 people in Denver's Mile High Stadium on the forty-fifth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, new possibilities will be born. A historic candidacy, a new generation in motion, a nation yearning for change. Even the cynics running the McCain campaign might be touched, if they weren't so busy savaging Obama as a vain celebrity not up to the task of leading a nation.
No one should be blinded by the lights. It will take hard work to turn the nomination into victory in a campaign that has already turned ugly. Moreover, even if victorious, Obama will inherit the calamitous conditions wrought by conservative failures -- a sinking economy, unsustainable occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, accelerating climate change, Gilded Age inequality, a broken healthcare system and much more.
Obama will also be limited by the constricted consensus of an establishment not yet able to contemplate the changes needed to set this country right again. To be successful, his presidency will have to be bolder and more radical than now imagined.
A historic candidate, the forbidding conditions and the constricted consensus make it vital that progressives think clearly and act independently in forging a strategy over the next months. The following is a contribution to a rich and ongoing discussion. We invite others to join it at thenation.com in the weeks to come.
A Sea-Change Election
The Obama nomination sets the stage for a sea-change election, one that could not only elect a Democratic President and increased reform majorities in both houses of Congress but also mark a clear turn from the conservative ideas that have dominated our politics for three decades.
In recent weeks, the media -- primed by a Republican strategy contrasting Obama's purported doublespeak with McCain's alleged Straight Talk -- have focused on Obama's compromises and backsliding. Much of the alleged retrenchment has been exaggerated. Some of it -- like his fold on the FISA wiretap bill, mixed signals on trade, the compromise on offshore drilling -- has been clear and deplorable. Many on the left were dismayed as the Obama campaign trotted out advisers from a Democratic bench that had championed the toxic Rubinomics brew of corporate trade and financial deregulation.
These concerns should not distract us from the central reality: this election features a stark ideological contrast. Although marketed as a trustworthy maverick, McCain accurately describes himself as a "foot soldier in the Reagan revolution" and attests that "on the transcendent issues, the most important issues of our day, I've been totally in agreement and support of President Bush." He is committed to the full Bush catastrophe: continued war in Iraq, more tax cuts for the wealthiest, more corporate trade deals, more deregulation, more hostility toward labor, more conservative social policies and reactionary judges. Indeed, he's Bush on steroids. McCain seeks not only to privatize Social Security but also to unravel employer-based healthcare, leaving people to negotiate alone with insurance companies liberated from regulation. His bellicose posturing on Iran and Iraq is as disastrous as his pledge of impossibly deep cuts in domestic programs. He embraces the corporate economic and trade agenda that has so devastated the American middle class. If he is defeated, it will mark the end of the Reagan era.
Obama clearly offers a change of course. His victory in itself will require overcoming the racial fears that have so long divided this country. He carries a reform agenda -- largely driven by progressives -- into the election: an end to the occupation of Iraq, using the money squandered there to rebuild America; affordable healthcare for all, paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy; a concerted drive for energy independence, generating jobs while investing in renewable energy and conservation. He is committed to empowering labor, to holding corporations and banks more accountable and to challenging our trade policies. A social liberal, his judicial appointees will keep the right from consolidating its hold on the federal judiciary. Obama may not be a "movement" progressive in the way that Reagan was a "movement" conservative, and he may have disappointed activists with his recent compromises, but make no mistake: his election will open a new era of reform, the scope of which will depend -- as Obama often says -- on independent progressive mobilization to keep the pressure on and overcome entrenched interests.
As this is written, an election Obama should win handily is locked in a virtual tie. Both the Obama and McCain campaigns treat the race as a referendum on Obama, with the former focused on getting Americans comfortable with trusting a young African-American with an unusual name, and the Rove minions in the McCain campaign intent on stoking the fears that enabled them to assemble a white majority party in the past.
Obama's campaign will not succeed without the independent efforts of progressive activists. One central task is winning support among wary white blue-collar workers, the core target of the Rovian poison. This will require persuasion as well as mobilization; the work of the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, Working America, religious groups and others with a base in these communities in swing states will be of critical importance.
Progressives generally -- and independent media and the blogosphere specifically -- can contribute by reminding voters there's a clear choice in this election, with McCain representing the same old, same old. While exposing McCain's doubletalk, his Bush-redux agenda and the money and interests behind the scurrilous right-wing independent expenditure campaigns, progressives can also help build support for reform. The new Health Care for America Now coalition, for example, has the resources to expose McCain's healthcare folly, thereby building a mandate for universal coverage. The antiwar movement should be challenging McCain's saber-rattling on Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, helping to strengthen US support for a change in course. With gas prices at the center of American concerns, the environmental alliance around jobs and energy can consolidate support for a concerted drive toward energy independence, while challenging absurd claims that we can drill our way out of the crisis.