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Mark Klempner

Mark Klempner

Posted: August 25, 2009 11:06 AM

Hope 2.0: Standing With Obama Over the Long Haul


When Bush was inaugurated in 2000, conservatives championed him. Our man is in the White House, they gloated, and right-wing commentators would snap at the feet of his detractors like guard dogs. This loyalty did not taper off until after it was generally accepted that Bush had made a mess of Iraq, the economy, and our civil liberties.

Even in July 2007 when Bush's approval rating had dropped to an all-time low of 29 percent, Bill Kristol opened a Washington Post op-ed with, "I suppose I'll merely expose myself to harmless ridicule if I make the following assertion: George W. Bush's presidency will probably be a successful one."

Compare this to Kevin Baker's erudite critique of Obama's economic plan in last month's Harper's. Entitled Barack Hoover Obama: The Best and the Brightest Blow It Again, it concludes that Obama is "bound to fail. " And, as if to underscore Harper's fashionable cynicism, the cover shows a digitally disfigured Obama sporting Hoover-like jowls.

It's not that I object to critical thinking. We need it. We don't want to follow in the footsteps of Bush's flag-waving lemmings and walk with Obama over the cliff of an ill-conceived "change." Yet, while we're reminding Obama of his promises and scrutinizing him on his decisions, we need to stand with him.

The fact is, Obama had barely been sworn in before certain leftist bloggers and commentators began to bash him. It's as if they expected Obama to ram through a far left agenda in the same way that Bush rammed through a far right one.

Did progressives like it when he did that? No, it infuriated us. The backlash was one of the reasons why record numbers turned out to vote for Obama. But now it was our turn -- or so some thought.

Apparently they were not listening when Obama vowed to unify the country. Apparently some of them expected him to lie like Bush when he promised to work in a bipartisan way. And some must have thought it was just rhetoric when he spoke of "the audacity of hope."

The sad truth is that many of us are not hopeful. Despite our temporary elation when Obama became President, we haven't been able to shake our chronic pessimism and cynicism.

Whereas our analogues on the right used to effuse over how W. was doing a helluva job even as the country went to hell, we mutter or post disparaging comments about how Obama has let us down. Though he's accomplished some great things in his first seven months, none of it meets our unrealistically high expectations. What we don't get is that, under the circumstances, there's not much difference between being hypercritical and hypocritical.

I mean, could any of us do better? For decades, Massachusetts liberals worked for statewide universal health care and only recently succeeded to a limited degree. And yet some of us expect Obama to score a public health care system for the entire country without making any significant compromises.

Sure, it's hard to watch Obama's ideas get diluted and convoluted. Even his cabinet choices ticked off many lefty activists. But Obama is a radical centrist, not a radical. He needs us to push the perceived middle to the left. Above all, he needs to hear our voices above the relentless well-oiled hum of the corporatists who infest and hover around both parties.

This is just the beginning of a journey that's going to last four and possibly eight years. But if the outcomes progressives want are going to fully materialize, we will have to work harder than ever -- so hard that we'll later realize that our efforts to get Obama elected were merely a warm up. And we're going to have to pull together. As political filmmaker Eugene Jarecki warns, "Don't you dare go MIA during the Obama presidency."

Back in 2006, Obama wrote that what our country needs are citizens "reengaged in the project of national renewal." In his 2008 Democratic Convention speech, he said, "This election has never been about me. It's been about you." And currently emblazoned on his citizen activism website is the following quote: "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington ... I'm asking you to believe in yours."

So why can't we own this presidency? Obama is not responsible for the corruption and gridlock in our political system. These hindrances to real change are tying his hands as much as they are tying ours. Together we can begin to liberate ourselves. But not if we decide that Obama, too, is part of the problem.

Liberal boomers grew up defining themselves in opposition to things: Nixon, the Vietnam War, unequal treatment of women and blacks. While our conservative counterparts were playing team sports and learning to function in a well-defined hierarchy, we were listening to Bob Dylan and learning to question and mistrust authority.

Both perspectives have their strengths, but liberal boomers need now to cultivate the kind of flexibility that Obama demonstrates: an ability to transcend liberal and conservative thinking and pursue a new path based on what works.

During the lead up to the election, liberals could stay in their ideological comfort zone as they worked to get out the vote. To succeed now, we will have to step outside our bubble, back away from some of our entrenched positions, and shelve some of our dogmas. We will have to learn to communicate with people with whom we vehemently disagree in order to get things done -- increment by hard-fought increment -- for the common good.

It's not going to be easy; in fact, it's already gotten downright ugly. But, as Obama pointed out last week, it was no less ugly when Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to establish Social Security, or when John F. Kennedy, and later, Lyndon Johnson, tried to establish Medicare.

Earlier this month in Grand Junction, Obama reiterated that change comes from the bottom up, not the top down, and closed by saying, "If you want a different future -- a brighter future -- I need your help." Will we help him seize that brighter future for us, or roll our eyes and turn smugly away?

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