Transformational president or another disappointment? That's up to us
By Tom Hayden
Barack Obama, it is true, is a transformational leader. But he needs
a transformational movement to become a transformational president.
My wife and I have an adopted 8-year-old "biracial" boy whose roots
are African-American. My adult son is married to an African-American
woman with roots in Jamaica and Costa Rica. Our family is part of the
globalized generation Obama represents. What is at stake for our
kids' future is real, palpable, not only political. Their future will
very much be shaped by the outcome of this election. Millions of
people in this countryand around the worldfeel similarly affected.
Myths are all-important, as Obama writes in his Dreams From My
Father. Fifty years ago, the mythic Obama existed only as an
aspiration, an ideal, in a country where interracial love was taboo
and interracial marriage was largely banned.
The early civil-rights movement, the jazz musicians and the Beat
poets dreamed up this mythic Obama before the literal Obama could
materialize. His African father and white countercultural mother
dared to dream and love him into existence, incarnate him, at the
creative moment of the historic march on Washington. Only the
overthrow of Jim Crow segregation then opened space for the dream to
If this sounds unscientific or, as some would say, cultish, think
about it. None of the supposedly expert people in the political,
media or intellectual establishments saw this day coming. I didn't
expect it myself; the news was carried to me by a new generation,
including my own grown-up children. It was dreamed up and built
"beyond the radar" or "outside the box" by experienced dreamers with
long histories in community organizing, social movements and not a
few lost causes.
In one of his best oratorical moments, Obama summons the spirit of
social movements that were built from the bottom up, from the
Revolutionary War to the abolitionist crusade to the women's suffrage
cause to the eight-hour day and the rights of labor, ending with the
time of his birth when the walls came down in Selma and Montgomery,
Ala., and Delano, Calif. As he repeats this mantra of movements
thousands of times to millions of Americans, a new cultural
understanding becomes possible. This is the foundation of a new
American story that is badly needed, one that attributes whatever is
great about this country to the ghosts of those who came before, in
social movements from the margins.
John McCain represents a different American story. I am constantly
aware that he bombed Vietnam at least 25 times before being shot down
in a war that never should have been fought, in a defeat that still
cannot say its name. He wants to continue the unwinnable Iraq War,
costing $10 billion per month, until every suspect Iraqi is dead,
wounded or detained, even though our military tactics keep causing
more young Iraqis to hate us than ever before. As if fighting the war
on terrorism until the end of terrorism isn't enough for him, McCain
wants to reignite the Cold War until the Russians are forever broken
and humiliated. The vanguard for the anti-Russian offensive has been
Georgia, a stronghold of the neoconservative lobby and, incidentally,
a cash cow for McCain's own foreign-policy adviser Randy Scheunemann,
who made hundreds of thousands of dollars working as a lobbyist for
the country before joining McCain's campaign team.
This inability to limit the adventurist appetite for war is the most
dangerous element of the McCain and Republican worldview. It is
paralleled, of course, by their inability to limit the corporate
appetite for an unregulated market economy. In combination, the brew
is an economy directed to the needs of the country-club rich, the oil
companies and military contractors. A form of crony capitalism
slouches forward in place of either competitive markets or state regulation.
My prediction: If he continues on course, Obama will win the popular
vote by a few percentage points in November but is at serious risk in
the Electoral College. The institution rooted in the original slavery
compromise may be a barrier too great to overcome.
Unlike the nadir of 2000, when Al Gore and the institutional
Democrats seemed unable to mount a resistance, another Electoral
College loss should trigger an unrelenting and forceful democracy
movement against the Electoral College and other institutional chains
on the right to know, vote and participate.
There are many outside the Obama movement who assert that the
candidate is "not progressive enough," that Obama will be co-opted as
a new face for American interventionism, that, in any event, real
change cannot be achieved from the top down.
These criticisms are correct. But in the end, they miss the larger point.
Most of us want President Obama to withdraw troops from Iraq more
rapidly than in 16 months. But it is important that Obama's position
is shared by Iraq's prime minister and the vast majority of both our
peoples. The Iraqi regime, pressured by its own people, has rejected
the White House and McCain's refusal to adopt a timetable.
The real problem with Obama's position on Iraq is his adherence to
the outmoded Baker-Hamilton proposal to leave thousands of American
troops behind for training, advising and ill-defined
"counterterrorism" operations. Obama should be pressured to
reconsider this recipe for a low-visibility counterinsurgency quagmire.
On Iran, Obama has usefully emphasized diplomacy as the only path to
manage the bilateral crisis and assure the possibility of orderly
withdrawal from Iraq. He should be pressed to resist any escalation.
On Afghanistan, Obama has proposed transferring 10,000 American
combat troops from Iraq, which means out of the frying pan, into the
fire. Pakistan could be Obama's Bay of Pigs, a debacle. On
Israel-Palestine, he will pursue diplomacy more aggressively, but
little more. Altogether, the counterinsurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan
and Pakistan are likely to become a spreading global quagmire and a
human-rights nightmare, nullifying the funding prospects for
healthcare reform or other domestic initiatives.
In Latin America, Obama has been out of step and out of touch with
the winds of democratic change sweeping Latin America. His commitment
to fulfilling the United Nations anti-poverty goals, or to
eradicating sweatshops through a global living wage, is underwhelming
andgiven his anti-terrorism warswill be underfinanced.
And so on. The man will disappoint as well as inspire.
Once again, then, why support him by knocking on doors, sending
money, monitoring polling places, getting our hopes up? There are
three reasons that stand out in my mind. First, American
progressives, radicals and populists need to be part of the vast
Obama coalition, not perceived as negative do-nothings in the minds
of the young people and African-Americans at the center of the
organized campaign. It is not a "lesser evil" for anyone of my
generation's background to send an African-American Democrat to the
White House. Pressure from supporters of Obama is more effective than
pressure from critics who don't care much if he wins and won't lift a
finger to help him. Second, his court appointments will keep us from
a right-wing lock on social, economic and civil-liberties issues
during our lifetime. Third, we all can chew gum and walk at the same
time; that is, it should be no problem to vote for Obama and picket
his White House when justified.
Obama himself says he has solid progressive roots but that he intends
to campaign and govern from the center. (He has said he is neither a
"Scoop" Jackson Democrat nor a Tom Hayden Democrat.) That is a
challenge to rise up, organize and reshape the center, and to build a
climate of public opinion so intense that it becomes necessary to
redeploy from military quagmires, take on the unregulated
corporations and uncontrolled global warming and devote resources to
domestic priorities like healthcare, the green economy and inner-city
jobs for youth.
What is missing in the current equation is not a capable and
enlightened centrist but a progressive social movement on a scale
like those of the past.
The creative tension between large social movements and enlightened
Machiavellian leaders is the historical model that has produced the
most important reforms in the course of American history.
Mainstream political leaders will not move to the left of their own
base. There are no shortcuts to radical change without a powerful and
effective constituency organized from the bottom up. The next chapter
in Obama's new American story remains to be written, perhaps by the
most visionary of his own supporters.
His own movement will have to pull him toward full withdrawal from
Iraq or the regulation of the great financial power centers, instead
of waiting for him to lead. Already among his elite caste of
fund-raisers, there is more interest in his position on the
capital-gains tax than holding Halliburton accountable. And his "cast
of 300" national security advisers, according to The New York Times,
"fall well within centrist Democratic foreign policy thinking."
Progressives need to unite for Barack Obama but also
uniteorganically at least, not in a top-down wayon issues like
peace, the environment, the economy, media reform, campaign finance
and equality like never before. The growing conflict today is between
democracy and empire, and the battlefronts are many and often
confusing. Even the Bush years have failed to unite American
progressives as effectively as occurred during Vietnam. There is no
reason to expect a President McCain to unify anything more than our
But there is the improbable hope that the movement set ablaze by the
Obama campaign will be enough to elect Obama and a more progressive
Congress in November, creating an explosion of rising expectations
for social movementshere and around the worldthat President Obama
will be compelled to meet in 2009.
That is a moment to live and fight for.
Tom Hayden is a civil-rights and anti-war activist who served in the
California Legislature from 1982 to 2000 and currently serves on the
advisory board of Progressive Democrats of America.