Thinking About Obama: How to Support the President in 2012

09/12/2011 09:46 am ET | Updated Nov 12, 2011
  • Derek Shearer Professor of Diplomacy at Occidental College and former US ambassador

"How should we think about Obama?"

My friend and former State Senator, Sheila Kuehl likes to get right to the serious stuff.

I recently had a catch-up lunch with Sheila, a fourteen-year veteran of the California legislature (she left because of term limits), author of over 170 bills, including paid family leave and other progressive measures, and one of the most effective Democrats to serve in elected office -- a person who cares deeply about policy and who understands practical politics. Like me and many other progressive Democrats, she has been disappointed in President Obama's performance in office, but she is not ready to give up on him.

"Remember the great spirit of Camp Obamas which energized so many people," Sheila recalled as we ate outside in the garden. "Can we get that back or are people too disillusioned?"

A lot of Obama supporters, young and old, are disappointed in him -- above all, with his vacillating leadership and inability to stand up against the Republican attack on government and offer a strong counter-narrative. I hear these sentiments from many of my students, as well as from long time friends like Sheila. A number of progressives have been harshly critical of Obama's political leadership including many authors on the Huffington Post, and not without reason. Others, turned off by the political wrangling and partisan gridlock in Washington, DC., blame money politics more than Obama's failings as a leader, and want to find ways to change the political system.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has called for a moratorium on political donations until the politicians stop bickering and start acting like grown-ups. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and Johns Hopkins political scientist Michael Mandelbaum argue in their new book, That Used To Be US: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, that the only hope to move forward a public agenda of reform and renewal is for a third party candidate to run in 2012 representing what they call "the radical center."

The 'nation-building at home' reforms they favor -- greater public investment in infrastructure, a serious response to global warming through promotion of renewable resources, educational reform focused on science and math, and greater attention to growing economic inequality -- are desirable and ones most Democrats support, but their political strategy of a third party candidate is wrongheaded. (For detailed historical arguments see my article in The Nation, "Citizens' Party: Wrong Time, Wrong Race, May 10, 1980, or simply remember how Ralph Nader's campaign in 2000 helped to elect George Bush). Their book is well meant and contains numerous stories of laudable individuals working for serious change in America, but as David Frum notes in the New York Times Book Review (September 12, 2011) it is an elitist approach, built on the hope that reasonable men might stand up and bring us together in a Grand Bargain for reform.

Politics is about a clash of interests as well as of ideas. It is almost never a rational discussion of overarching national interest. It is about people who are passionate, and who care enough to raise money, walk precincts, make phone calls, and reach out to neighbors about candidates who they feel represent them and their interests. Many Tea Party supporters are passionate about politics, however wrongheaded we might think their public agenda or how reactionary their vision of America. As many commentators have noted, Obama's seeming lack of passion is a political minus, not an admirable trait. Parties also have a class and social basis. It can't escape notice that the Republican Party has replaced the Democrats in most Southern States, and has a largely white, and relatively upper income base. Democrats are more diverse, people of color, working class, and lower income. Parties reflect and represent these interests and world views.

Sheila Kuehl understands the nature and calling of the political life. A Harvard trained lawyer and the first openly gay person elected to the California legislature, she brought passion to her office, and then focused that passion to achieve practical legislative measures that benefited both her constituents and all California women, children and working families. Because I respect Sheila as well as like her personally, I took seriously her question at lunch: how should we think about Obama -- and what should we do in 2012?

Of course, we should support him in his reelection -- but we should do it strategically by arguing for conditions which will make his reelection more than a personal victory. 2012 should be about much more than giving Barack Obama his second term. Here's my guide for the politically dissatisfied:

1. We need a Vice President who can succeed Obama after his second term -- and it's not Joe Biden. He would make an excellent Secretary of State, but he is not a strong presidential candidate for 2016. He needs to be traded for someone who can compete seriously for the presidency after Obama.

One of Bill Clinton's best decisions was to select a contemporary as his running mate. We won't revisit the reasons why Al Gore didn't become president, but he was a good if imperfect candidate whom Clinton set up to run after him and carry on his work. As the initiator and co-author of the 1992 campaign program, "Putting People First," I used to say that was an agenda for eight years of Clinton and then eight years of Gore. The world would be a much better place if that had come to pass.

Supporters of Obama should tell him that he needs to trade in Biden by making him Secretary of State, and replacing him with Hillary Clinton -- my first choice -- or if not Hillary, then a contemporary such as Congressman Xavier Becerra. Moving Biden to State and making Hillary VP would bring needed excitement to the campaign, help Obama win back the enthusiasm of the Democratic base, and assure that a strong candidate would run in 2016 as his successor. Similarly, picking Xavier Becerra, the respected and progressive Congressman from Los Angeles, son of working-class immigrants, a graduate of Stanford and Stanford Law whom the leadership has appointed to the Joint Select Deficit Reduction Committee, would give the party its first Latino nominee, and offset the appeal of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, should he be selected for the VP spot on the Republican ticket (as seems highly likely).

We can argue about who Obama should pick, but he shouldn't keep Biden on the ticket -- not if we want to win again in 2016. A political movement should be about more than the candidate of the moment.

2. Revive the spirit and organization of the 2008 campaign including the Camp Obamas, but this time, keep the grassroots organization in tack and separate from the White House after the election.

As Marshall Ganz, one of the key Obama organizers in his election campaign, has pointed out, a key mistake was to fold the more than 10 million Obama activists from the campaign into the White House political organization and the DNC. Instead, they should have been mobilized through a separate non-profit run by Ganz and other progressives. Leaders in MoveOn, labor unions, women's organizations, gay rights groups, and others who will be asked to get out their members for Obama in 2012 should ask in return that he promise to keep the grassroots campaign organization active (and separate from the White House) after he wins. Donors who fund many of the progressive organizations that supported Obama in the past and will likely do so in 2012 (no one wants to have a right wing Republican in power again in the White House) should make this reasonable demand a condition of their active support for Obama's reelection.

3. Keep pressuring Obama to stay with the fighting message of his American Jobs Speech.

Regardless of how the actual bill is handled in Congress, the message of the speech -- that government has a positive role to play in the lives of all Americans should be repeated over and over as the narrative of the 2012 campaign. In addition, those who are fortunate and wealthy in our society, owe it to the country to pay their fair share in taxes, and to give everyone a chance at making a better life.

If Obama starts to stray back into meaningless bipartisan rhetoric, he should be publicly pressured by his supporters again and again to stay on message. Reagan was a master at repeating his anti-government message over and over -- and usually with a smile. Obama should learn the lesson. Show passion and stand firm with your narrative.

4. Plan to expand the electorate and fight for everyone's right to vote.

As journalist Ari Berman describes in Rolling Stone ("The GOP War on Voting," September 15 , 2011), it is part of the strategy of the Republican Party to scare away Democratic voters from the polls -- in particular, voters of color -- using intimidating techniques under the guise of combating so-called "voter fraud". The Obama administration needs to take aggressive steps to counter these actions, including having President Obama call it by its proper name: intimidation.

In addition, Obama should be asked by supporters to introduce legislation making election day a national holiday and same day registration the law of the land. The point is to make it easier not harder for the almost half Americans of voting age who don't vote, even in presidential elections, to go to the polls.

The composition of the electorate is a key factor in achieving progressive change. I learned this more than a quarter century ago, when we made electoral reform a key issue in local Santa Monica politics. For decades, municipal elections were held in April (a week after city elections in neighboring Los Angeles), and turnout was always low. Those who voted were mainly better off, conservative homeowners, while Democratic renters didn't bother to show up at the polls.

Our center-left political coalition not only ran candidates for city council on a progressive urban platform which included a package of renters' rights; we also fought for and won moving the city's election day to November in the same years as state and national elections. Turnout soared and has stayed high ever since. Partly as a result of that reform, Santa Monica progressives have controlled the city council for something like 28 of the last 30 years, and used government to make Santa Monica a model of urban policies, including the first urban farmers market in the state, the first city-run curbside recycling, bike paths, non-profit community housing, the strongest renters rights law in the nation, and other measures widely copied by cities in California and the nation.

As I have written in the Huffington Post ( "Change That Really Matters," January 9, 2008), greater voter participation in a country is highly correlated with policies which benefit working families and produce more equitable economic and social outcomes. Activists should demand that the Democratic Party and its candidates stand for democracy with a small d by expanding the electoral base.

5. Plan and fight for a more progressive transition and more progressives in Obama's second term government.

The constituent groups which comprise the base of the Democratic party and which Obama must rely upon to supply the foot soldiers for his reelection -- labor, women, environmentalists, gay rights activists, Latino and black organizers, student groups, etc. -- should plan for winning, and talk during the campaign about the necessity for more progressive appointments in Obama's second term -- fighting liberals like Sheila Khuel or Elizabeth Warren (a missed opportunity).

At the very least, Obama supporters should pressure him to appoint smart and tough progressive economic thinkers to his White House team -- respected liberal economists such as James Galbraith and Barry Bluestone who care about inequality and about working class families. The labor movement especially has to be much tougher about insisting that pro-labor officials are appointed to key posts, not just at the Labor Department, but also on the Council of Economic Advisers, at The Treasury, the Office of the Trade Rep, the State Department, and elsewhere.

There are lots of good policy ideas (I've argued for many in past HP articles) -- but it is vital to remember that people make policy, and if you don't have fighting liberals and progressives in key positions, then progressive policies won't get enacted. Of course, you also have to win elections.

I hope that I have been clear as well as true to Sheila's charge. Let's support Obama in 2012, but not uncritically; and start thinking beyond his second term before he wins one -- and how to keep power after he leaves the scene.

It's also good to have a fallback position. As a Californian, mine is clear. If Rick Perry is elected president, then I will start a secession movement. We might even include the coastal cities of Oregon and Washington and call the new country Ecotopia.