THE BLOG

The Obama Problem

07/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the last week, Barack Obama has handed progressives a string of stinging rebukes. First, he all but capitulated on the issue of retroactive immunity for lawbreaking telecom companies by endorsing the FISA "compromise." Next came his disagreement with the Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty shouldn't be imposed for rape. And then his flip on the heels of the Supreme Court ruling allowing the sale of handguns in DC.

It's been a hell of a week.

So, what are progressives to do? As has been evident for some time now, Obama is only loosely affected by progressive pressure. While he has moved left on some important issues, overall he has bigger constituencies to please, and he will do what he wants.

In the short term, there's probably not much we can do, as Mike Lux explains:

For me, being able to hold a politician accountable is having the real power to actually have a negative impact on something they really care about, namely getting elected and passing legislation they want to pass (although there might be a few other smaller things some politicians might care about). Unless you have the ability and willingness to mess with a politician in a serious way on either of those things, I don't think you can hold them accountable. I don't think saying bad things about them holds them accountable, I don't think holding a protest holds them accountable, I don't think starting a petition holds them accountable- unless it is affecting their ability to win an election or pass legislation.

...

But the only way to hold a Presidential candidate in the general election accountable once the general election season comes around is to work for their defeat or otherwise endanger their victory. For most of us, given the alternative of four more years of deadlocked government and a stubborn, hyper-aggressive President McCain, that is not an acceptable option. I see occasional commenters writing about not lifting a finger to help Obama now that he's screwed us on FISA or other issues, but I don't think very many of us in the progressive movement are there. Am I bummed, am I pissed that Obama and most of our Democratic leaders caved in on FISA? Absolutely, and there's nothing wrong with saying so. But am I going to "hold Obama accountable" for this action? Well, no, frankly. I don't think there's a way to do that without doing something far worse. It's the nature of the American political system: winner take all, no instant runoffs, no fusion voting (except in a few states). In the months before a Presidential general election, I can't think of another alternative re the Presidential race other than doing everything I can do to help Obama win.

The harsh reality is, Barack Obama can and will tack towards the center on issues that are important to progressives during the general election. We can argue until we're blue in the face that this is not a smart thing to do, and by extension, that the country is ready for real progressive leadership, but Obama will do what he wants to do. Unless we are willing to actively work against him, we have no leverage.

I am not willing to actively work against him. I'm not willing to call on people to pull their money and their volunteer hours either. But two can play at Obama's game.

To me, Obama's methods are obvious. He is selling out a constituency without leverage (progressives) to burnish his centrist image, which he believes will bring him more votes in November. Obama is practicing, as BooMan puts it, "raw political calculation." Well, guess what; I can do that, too!

I will work to elect Obama because, a la "Crashing The Gate," he is the candidate who will most likely bring about the change I want. But I realize that this raw political calculation is only a marriage of convenience. As soon as Obama is elected, I become his critic, looking to move him left.

I will use Mike Lux's second option for true accountability, and my opposition to centrist statements or legislation coming from an Obama administration will be very real. Progressives have shown they can work together to help pass or scuttle a bill. That power will be used against any and all Obama legislation that charts a triangulated path for this country as opposed to the right one.

And in the meantime, I will also work to rid Congress of conservative, Blue and Bush Dog Democrats, and build up long-term progressive infrastructure, building a progressive Congress to pressure President Obama.

I do not believe for one second that Obama or the Democratic party will necessarily bring all the change we need. No party stands for my bedrock principles all the time, principles like the rule of law, the balance of powers, the Constitution, civil liberties, opportunity for all, security through freedom, reduced corporate power, and responsible governance. Politicians will sell me out to get elected when they can get away with it, and I will sell them out to uphold these principles when I can get away with it.

As long as we don't stoop so low as to rationalize a candidate's political calculations, progressives can retain their authority while still supporting a center/center-left candidate.

But once Obama is elected, it's war. As I've said before, November is just the beginning.