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The Obama "Betrayal" Narrative Takes Shape

01/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President-Elect Barack Obama hasn't even been sworn in yet but we can already see that his choice of his national security team is causing problems with the liberal-left elements of his party. With Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State, Robert Gates as his Secretary of Defense, and General James Jones as his National Security Adviser, Obama has surrounded himself with advisers, it is feared, who might not be able to think "outside the box." At a time when the entire world is demanding change it is understandable that this assemblage would raise concerns. The fear is that Obama, bending to pressure from the military-industrial complex, might "re-brand" the Iraq war, "downsize" it, and continue the U.S. occupation under new management. Among the anti-war movement the "betrayal" narrative is already taking shape. But no one can say with any certainty what is going to happen. I'm still amazed that America was capable of electing Obama in the first place.

Eight years of neo-conservative fantasists running American foreign policy and people the world over have recognized the folly of seeking to solve global problems through military power. It's not so much an ideological battle between left and right but a demand for a fundamentally new international role for the United States. As President, Obama assures us that "the buck stops" with him and he'll be the agent of "change" (even as he surrounds himself with Washington insiders). The concern among some of his supporters is that the advice Obama receives from the hawks inside his cabinet could overwhelm him, reinforce his cautious side, and lead him to dilute the clarion call for change that put him in office in the first place. But Obama has been full of surprises since he launched his presidential campaign and he may have a few more in store for us.

In my view Obama has assembled not so much a "team of rivals" but a "team of technocrats." These people understand the bureaucracies they will be running, as well as the moving parts of the federal machinery. The complaints coming from some Obama partisans have been fulsome, notably that there is not an anti-war voice among them. But keeping Gates on as Secretary of Defense might be a shrewd political move because it puts a Republican face on the draw down of American combat troops in Iraq. Gates will be the one who gives the press updates on the progress of the withdrawal. Diversity of opinion in one's inner circle is far better than the ideological purity and "groupthink" that permeated the George W. Bush White House.

Eighteen months ago it looked like the Democratic Party was going to coronate Hillary Clinton as its presidential nominee. Although Clinton might become an excellent Secretary of State, her nomination would have been a disaster for the Democratic Party. Clinton hatred among Republicans would have reached a fevered pitch and she was sure to run another DLC-type presidential race; an anemic campaign like 2000 and 2004 that takes the activist base for granted while competing for "moderates" in swing states. Had Hillary and the Democrats followed that strategy we might now be awaiting the swearing-in ceremonies of John McCain and Sarah Palin while we girded ourselves for World War III.

In contrast, Obama took his campaign to the grassroots and reformed the Democratic Party from below, something it has direly needed since the time of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination forty years ago. Obama is now the head of the Democratic Party and Clinton works for him. These are positive developments.

Now, let's review. The American Left has been playing defense for decades. Labor unions, which are the heart of any "Left" worthy of the name, have suffered setback after setback throughout the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush years. The outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries, "free trade" agreements like NAFTA, and the anti-labor stance of the federal government and "right-to-work" states have decimated organized labor. If one omits government employees the percentage of unionized workers today hovers at an abysmally low 7 percent. Similarly, civil rights organizations have been playing catch up since the halcyon days of the 1960s and '70s. Even the most cursory glance at the incarceration rate of young African-American men, along with black poverty statistics, shows little progress in recent years alleviating racial discrimination and providing new economic opportunities. The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division is moribund. Women's rights organizations have been playing defense as well. The Supreme Court, along with state courts and ballot initiatives, has consistently eroded reproductive rights, equal pay statutes, and even the basic privacy rights of America's women (See Gloria Feldt's The War on Choice). Environmentalists have been hammered too. There has been a wholesale rollback of environmental regulations starting from Reagan's first term to the present (See Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s Crimes Against Nature). Even as a Lame Duck, Bush is ramming through a toxic brew of new regulations as parting gifts to the nation's biggest polluters. And California voters passed Proposition Eight, the initiative banning gay marriage.

We've been battered by Nixon's "Silent Majority," Reagan's "Moral Majority," Bush the Elder's "Thousand Points of Light," Bill Clinton's "New Democrats," Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," and Bush the Younger's "Compassionate Conservatism." A recent study from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education shows that from 1982 to 2007, adjusted for inflation, the cost of college tuition and fees has increased 439 percent, and health care costs have gone up 270 percent. The social safety net is in tatters and the rich have gotten richer while the rest of us struggle just to get by. For my entire adult life the Republican Right has set the nation's agenda. We should think about these things before we start dissing Obama for not being progressive enough.

Progressives seem to demand either ideological purity or squabble over how their particular identity or interest group is being neglected or ignored. This lack of unity is one of the reasons why the Right has been able to dominate our political discourse for so long. The point is we should build on the Obama ascendancy, push him toward taking politically uncomfortable stands, and stay engaged and organized.

Be forewarned: This whole "change" experiment can snap back very quickly to a Bush retread if we're not careful. Examples from our recent history abound. Just six years after a Republican president resigned in disgrace after a torrent of corruption scandals the GOP came roaring back with the "Reagan Revolution." And the last time we elected a Democratic president the Republicans won fifty-seven seats in the House of Representatives in the first midterm election.

Looking back, President John F. Kennedy did not start out his presidency doing much of anything for civil rights. But after the Freedom Rides and the battles over the racial integration of the Universities of Mississippi and Alabama, grassroots activists prodded him to take bolder action. The result was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We have the opportunity to do the same thing to President Obama. Obama has told us repeatedly that he is going to need the help of an aroused citizenry if he is to accomplish what he promised during the campaign. Let's call his challenge. The Left has already won a small victory by pushing Obama to drop John Brennan as his possible CIA head because of his support of Bush's detention and interrogation programs. Let's keep up the pressure.

If Obama says he wants to keep American soldiers in Iraq to "train" the security services, we should demand that he remove them all. The U.S. military has no legitimate role to play in Iraq after all the damage it has done, and other Muslim countries (preferably outside the Middle East) are capable of providing any "training" that might be necessary; or maybe an international contingent under United Nations oversight could take on the task. All U.S. military personnel and private contractors should be "redeployed" out of Iraq. We should turn over Balad Air Base to the Iraqis so they can use it as an international airport, abandon the "Green Zone" and the rest of the bases, and begin paying reparations. The political pressure on Obama will have to be overwhelming to make this happen. Instead of whining about "betrayal" why not hold Obama's feet to the fire through direct citizen action? Stay mobilized and ready for battle.

We finally have an administration and a Congress that might listen to the concerns of the progressive-left community. If Obama can achieve his key foreign policy goal of disengaging military forces from Iraq in sixteen months, and then begin to move the nation toward economic recovery and a system of universal health coverage, his presidency will be a success. We might then be able to build on these successes and open up new possibilities for social change.

But we have to give him the chance.

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