The Lesson of Sonia Sotomayor for Barack Obama

07/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It took Nixon to go to China. If any Democratic president prior to Nixon had tried that, he would have been vilified. Obama has just made a wonderful Supreme Court nomination.

Obama varies between being a pragmatist and a man of principle. Sonia Sotomayor is a slam dunk. He knows this. Any brutal fight on her nomination loses the Spanish vote and alienates women further.

But today Obama also argues for preventive detention, for trying to make meaningless changes in the military tribunals rather than jettison them, for continuing the practice of rendition, sending detainees to prison in foreign countries where they can be tortured, and holding up the closing of Guantanamo by giving into those who say there are no prisons in the United States that can safely hold detainees.

Cheney in this environment, in the year 2009 could not get away with this.
At the end of the day we never appreciated how much his community organizing experience along with his years as a politician may have turned him into someone with wonderful rhetoric but far less fight ,and a willingness to compromise.

Compromise is a large part of community organizing for many. But not all, Cesar Chavez, who I represented for year, like Obama a student of Saul Alinsky, cared not for the illusion of bipartisanship, or that you could change your opponent's mind either by invocations to Christianity or a shared view that all men are deserving of inalienable human rights. Chavez (and Alinsky) evoked whatever images they believed in and thought useful.

But they knew the limitation of those high-sounding ideals. When it was time for Chavez to use physical force, to break through truckers' lines, he did it. Chavez's principle was to gain equality, freedom and liberty. He talked compromise and pragmatism to get there, but those methods were not his goal. He had no illusion about the viciousness of the people he fought.

Cheney could never have done the things Obama is now doing. Cheney is right in saying so.

Obama has the strength of a nation behind him. He is as powerful as Franklin Delano Roosevelt was. He has, the country has, an extraordinary opportunity. He has already made so many compromises that he can be accused of being unprincipled, fighting only the fights he can't lose.

Barack Obama must now save himself and America.