12/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated 5 days ago

Critical Friendship: Obama & Us

One of the central principles in community organizing is that there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. Barack Obama won by convincing millions of Americans that there are no permanent enemies of progressive change. In the same spirit, Obama's supporters must not become permanent friends to our new President.

The President-Elect understandably wants to translate the millions he mobilized during the election into a unified force pushing for his agenda. But Obama the Organizer knows that it's him we should be pushing.

Barack Obama ran on a mission of change -- and not just small change but big, sweeping, transformative change. Pundits are busy speculating how Obama will govern -- boldly, with a progressive mandate, or cautiously, hewing the center-right. But regardless of the aspirations of Obama's heart or the political calculations of his mind, it's clear that the forces of Washington tilt toward the timid and the status quo is resilient and domineering. The single greatest thing we can do to honor the spirit of Obama's campaign and life work is bring as much enthusiasm to holding Obama accountable as we did to electing him. We must remember that this election was about the change we want and our role as active citizens is to continually define -- and press -- the definition of change, not simply let it be defined for us.

A friend of mine calls this critical friendship. He thinks that the highest complement you can pay a friend is to be honest, even when the truth hurts. In a way, Barack Obama invited critical friendship of America and our government -- celebrating the many valuable things government does in our lives but also reminding people that government only works when we work. As they say, democracy is not a spectator sport. If our government isn't adequately regulating Wall Street, it's because we elected anti-regulation conservatives. If our government isn't spending enough on public education, it's because we keep opposing taxes. If our government isn't guaranteeing health care for all, it's because we are letting HMO lobbyists have too much sway. If our government is to do the right thing by all of us going forward, fixing the mess we're in today and building for a better tomorrow, we can't let Election Day be the beginning and end of our civic responsibility. In our evolving critical friendship with our country, we have to watch over Washington and speak up when the White House veers from its course.

At the moment, we're all so excited basking in the glorious redemption and promise of Obama's election to even think about criticizing him. And as the first Democrat with a popular majority since Carter and the first African American President since forever, for some, the basking will never end and the momentousness of Obama's ascent will nullify any critique. But realistically, there will come a time when President Obama holds back or is held back -- and we must be there to push him and our country forward.

In doing so, one key lesson we should take away from the Obama campaign is that organizing works -- that speaking up as a single, isolated voice is a start but joining together with others and recruiting even more to form a united voice is evermore powerful and effective. And the other key lesson of this election is that our democracy can only truly flourish and our country work for everyone if everyone is included in the process of change. Those who most often have been voiceless in our country, especially people of color, low-income people and immigrants, must be integral leaders in our shared fight for the future. Otherwise the agenda we end up pressing will continue to leave out those who have been left out in the past.

As you're reading this, hundreds of grassroots, community-led organizations across the country are engaging everyday Americans to outline the agenda our new President should follow -- and making plans to make their voices heard should the mandate for change face obstacles in Washington. Find your local community organization and get involved. The Obama campaign's field effort proved the power of face-to-face organizing; and grassroots organizations will also play an important role rebuilding our nation at the state and local level, which is equally important.

In addition, there will be important events and gatherings from now and into the beginning of next year pressing the people's demands for change. The most exciting event I've heard of is Realizing the Promise: A Forum on Community, Faith and Democracy, organized by the Campaign for Community Values and the Gamaliel Foundation (for which Obama once worked) at which thousands of grassroots leaders will unveil the People's Platform for Economic Recovery to the new President and Congress. Realizing the Promise will be the key event of the season in which everyday Americans bring their shared agenda to Washington. And it will lay the groundwork for a constant community lobbying in the Capitol in which people come from all across the country to press their legislators on the change we really want. You should be a part of it.

In its first post-election email to supporters, the Obama campaign wrote:

In the months and years ahead, we're going to accomplish amazing things together. No president has ever had the support of such a powerful grassroots movement, and Barack and Joe will need you to continue fighting alongside them.

At the moment, the growing people's movement for progressive change is virtually arm-in-arm with President-Elect Obama as the chief representative of our hopes and dreams. But should he turn his back on us, we must remember that our true loyalties are not with the man but with the mission -- and we must prepare ourselves to act accordingly.