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

"You Can't Always Get What You Want"

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the greatest, most progressive president of the 20th Century. He also tried to stack the Supreme Court and imprisoned 112,000 Japanese-Americans without due process. Does that mean the country would have been better off without Social Security, labor union rights, and should have stuck with Herbert Hoover?

John F. Kennedy is often lauded as the greatest president of the post-World War Two era. He launched a terror campaign against Cuba, defoliated large swathes of South Vietnam, and was slow in responding to the civil rights movement. Would the country have been better off with Richard Nixon?

In 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy ran against Eugene McCarthy the Left viewed Kennedy as a "ruthless opportunist" and a hypocrite whose opposition to the Vietnam War was too little, too late, and who spoke about rights for black people while emphasizing his "law and order" credentials to appeal to rural white voters. But was Nixon better?

The FISA bill, with its immunity for the Telecom corporations, is a travesty and should be filibustered. I disagree with Barack Obama's support of this legislative attack on the U.S. Constitution. It's a betrayal of his claim that he would always uphold the Constitution. Obama says he disagrees with the Supreme Court's ruling striking down the Louisiana death penalty statute. I've always opposed the death penalty and have been horrified when Democratic presidential candidates like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry support this barbaric practice. Obama also apparently thinks the Supreme Court's retrograde ruling on hand guns, which is guaranteed to end up killing thousands of innocent people, was acceptable. I disagree. RFK was killed with a $30 Iver-Johnson revolver, a "Saturday Night Special." I also wanted the Democratic Congress to impeach George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. And I wanted Congress to cut off all funding for the Iraq war.

To quote the great 20th Century British philosopher, Sir Mick Jagger: "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

But we still need Barack Obama to win in November.

What Obama has done is obvious: He has attempted to neutralize the Republican attacks. If he voted against the FISA bill the Republicans would have an opening to claim that he is unfit to be Commander-in-Chief because he voted to tie the hands of the president in the epic struggle against terrorism. If he comes out against the death penalty too strongly they'll say he's "soft on crime." And if he opposed the high court's ruling on handguns the NRA and the gun nuts would be energized beyond belief. He's tacking to the center. He's a politician.

The gap between the rich and the poor is wider than it has ever been in American history; the economy has tanked; people are losing their homes; we're in the midst of an energy crisis; the war in Iraq is draining the Treasury; the Constitution is in tatters, and so on, and on and on.

Some among the Left Netroots now seem to want Obama's head on a platter for his recent capitulations. Ralph Nader says Obama has been "talking white." (A black friend of mine asked sarcastically: "Does that mean he's speaking English?") The Left demands "purity." But Realpolitik demands that Obama placate Wall Street to a degree. And we all should recognize that the United States of America is going to continue to be an Empire no matter who is president.

In case you haven't noticed, the Left has been getting its ass kicked for 30 years now, all through the Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush era.

Obama is not a socialist who is going to nationalize the banks -- if he were, he would never have gotten close to becoming president. We're not electing Che Guevara.

Compared to Robert Kennedy in 1968, Obama has many political disadvantages. Kennedy had huge name recognition and was already famous when he started his campaign. Nobody knew who Obama was when he started in January 2007 (and his name is foreign sounding to many Americans). Kennedy had a vast personal fortune to draw upon. Until recently when he garnered some book royalties Obama really wasn't even close to being "rich." And RFK was white. Obama has an uphill climb, even with all his successful fundraising, because he is African American and must overcome deep and entrenched racism. (There are a number of racist websites that have popped up targeting Obama and just wait for those white supremacist 527s.) Obama can still lose this thing.

But we might have a chance of electing the most progressive candidate the American political system will allow. After he's elected we will hold Obama's feet to the fire. There will be disappointments. But what's new about that? The Left is always disappointed. At least with Obama we have the potential for real progressive change. The alternative is Bushism without Bush.