06/04/2010 01:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama, Progressives, and Leadership

I was getting ready to attend next week's America's Future Now conference, whose theme is that progressives must lead, and thinking about the relationship problems progressives are having with Barack Obama and the Congressional leadership. All the relationship books say that you need to be clear about what you need, so that you can communicate those needs to your partner in a healthy way. (At least that's what I imagine they say; I don't really know.)

The relationship between progressives and the Democratic leadership involves love, anger, and a lot of co-dependence. Some progressives seem to defend the President no matter what he does. Others have written him off as the hopelessly cynical tool (or manipulator) of a corrupt political system. Then there are those in the middle, the ones who get disillusioned and then fall in love all over again whenever he gives a great speech like he did yesterday. Political life must be a series of fifty first dates for them.

The first two groups periodically get angry at each other, while the third group probably alternates between ecstasy and heartache. It's a dysfunctional relationship, all excess and no balance. Here's an example of a middle way, inspired by this week's events: Progressives can congratulate the President when he speaks brilliantly about topics like the environment, while letting him know that he'll lose credibility if he doesn't back his words up with concrete action.

When I say "progressives," I mean people who care passionately about achieving a core group of goals - goals like universal healthcare, real financial reform, a renewing of the social contract with working people, an end to fruitless wars, and a commitment to caring for the poor, the elderly, and all children. I mean people who don't just support these ideals, but are engaged with them - as activists, organizers, bloggers, and/or as people who read and think about these issues on a daily basis.

In other words, I mean you guys - most of the people who are reading these words.

Some progressives think the only problem with Obama's performance so far is that people like - well, like me - don't give the guy a break. When I criticized Obama's continued use of Larry Summers to lead the financial reform charge, for example, this was a typical comment: "Sigh. Doesn't Obama get to do ANYTHING without being second-guessed?'" There were lots of others like this one, too, about the Justice Department's decision not to prosecute anyone in the AIG case: "... every politician, sooner than later, is but a paid stoodge (sic)."

Even Paul McCartney got in on the act on the pro-Obama side, when he said this week that the President's "a a great guy, so lay off him." Pace Paul, here's what I consider to be the right progressive response: The President seems to be a nice guy (though I have no idea if he is or not, and nobody's ever accused Rahm Emanuel of excessive niceness). But he's clearly responsive to political pressure, so we need to keep the pressure up from our side. If you're more comfortable putting it this way, let's say that we want to make a nice guy even nicer.

Other people will express their opinions at next week's event about how to lead in the age of Obama. (That's a session topic at next week's conference..) But here's my take: Don't support politicians - support results. Help politicians who are likely to achieve those results, oppose those who are likely to obstruct them, and pressure all of them to do the right thing whenever possible. (Note, for example, that a number of Republicans supported some meaningful financial reforms.) My view about politicians is respectful, but strictly utilitarian: They're tools for the greater good. I like some of them, but I reserve my deepest emotions for people in real need.

In some ways politicians - and make no mistake, they're all politicians - are like one-celled organisms. They'll respond to positive stimuli and avoid negative ones. So our role becomes a form of behavioral mod: reward them when they do the right thing and to degrade their quality of life when they don't. We should work to make sure that all politicians, from Obama on down, develop a splitting headache when they work against the progressive agenda. And we should work just as hard to help them to experience a warm and satisfying glow of satisfaction when they support our goals.

That means showering them with calls and letters of praise for their positive actions, followed by flowing cascades of donations, volunteers, and support. Believe me, that'll make any politician's cheeks turn rosy with afterglow. When they don't do the right thing? Stony silence, angry letters, lack of funds or volunteers - hey, maybe even a primary challenger. This needs to be tactically applied, of course - to have a Democrat replaced by an even worse Republican is usually a Pyrrhic victory. But Halter's primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln was an excellent example of the progressive movement's ability to punish anti-progressive behavior, which discourages it, while also pressuring pols to take better policy stands (like Lincoln's excellent amendment on derivatives.)

I've been disappointed at times with the behavior of some progressive colleagues during the health and financial reform debates, too. That includes activist organizations, progressive politicians, and liberal pundits that I respect and appreciate. Many of them are too eager to heap undeserved praise on a bill even before it's finished. When you do that you undercut yourself. Politics 101: If you're no longer a threat, you no longer have leverage.

Some colleagues were horrified at the criticism some of us directed toward the health bill as it was being defined, too. We were even called "traitors." One friend, for example, tweeted something like "Bernie Sanders likes the bill. Is he a liberal sell-out?" My answer was "No, but Bernie Sanders got $12 billion for primary care centers before he went along. What did you get?" Sanders' handling of health reform was a perfect example of bold, pragmatic, goal-oriented progressivism. Support the bill if it's a good one - but only after you've won every concession you can possibly win.

Progressives shouldn't follow leaders - they should exploit them. Politicians aren't heroes, they're tools to be used in a greater cause. So are we. We need to be unrelenting in their challenge of the right, whose ideology has demonstrably failed. We need to take that case to the people, even if - especially if - Democratic leaders won't. And we need to be much bolder in our vision, in our articulation of that vision, and in our willingness to lead instead of being led.

Action is a bitch. Leadership is a headache. Passionate involvement can mean a lot of sleepless nights. But take the reins anyway, progressives. It's your time. Let the politicians follow you for a change.


Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at ""