Will Obama govern from the left?, Thomas Ash

A small portrait of the translator

November 20, 2008 @ 20:39 UTC

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Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton
Gender, Government & Politics

The tea leaves are ready, and the crystal balls are out. Now that the campaign is over, everyone's attention is focused on predicting what sort of president Barack Obama will be. The real answer is that it is too early to tell: the degree to which he moves the country to the left will be limited not by his plans but by what is politically feasible, and that will be revealed by events yet to come.

It is true that some of Obama's recent actions seem almost designed to test his left-wing base's patience. He has reportedly offered the position of secretary of state to Hillary Clinton, who he pilloried in the primaries as a symbol of nineties triangulation. Clinton was never popular with the party's left wing or 'netroots', and Ben Smith at Politico reports that they are reacting to her reemergence with some dismay.

Likewise, the possibility of Lawrence Summers becoming Treasury Secretary is generating anger among feminists; they reacted badly (and in my opinion unfairly) to a notorious remark he made mentioning the possibility of gender differences in aptitude and interest in science. Obama's tolerant attitude towards Joe Lieberman, which yesterday resulted in the Connecticut Senator earning only the mildest of punishments, has also irritated some on the left.

However, these actions tell us more about Obama's attitude to HR than about his governing agenda. Neither Clinton nor Summers would drag the administration notably towards the left; both show signs of having moved away from the centrist nineties. As for the Democrats' leniency towards Lieberman, I argued earlier this week that it was the smart political choice, and this consideration appears to have been what drove Obama's decision.

There are also some important factors which may move Democrats to the left of where they have been in recent years. Foremost among these is the steadily increasing number of Senate seats they control. The Associated Press has just called Alaska for Mark Begich, Lieberman's seat is now secure, and Minnesota may well go to Al Franken. If the Democrats also win the run-off election in Georgia, they would have a sixty seat majority, enabling them to shut down Republican filibusters.

Another force which may drive the Obama administration leftwards are the 'netroots': the growing number of left-wing activists who congregate on websites like DailyKos. They may not have got Lieberman kicked out of the caucus, but they are energised, vocal, and influential in the party. If they can replicate the successes the grassroots Republicans have had in steering their party over the past three decades, they will play a large role in shaping the future of the country. It will be interesting to see how they interact with an Obama administration. Some of Obama's energetic supporters in the netroots will doubtless fade away. Others will remain energetic, and may be pivotal in building popular support for his proposed reforms. Still others will lose their trust in a President who will inevitably have to make some tough choices and centrist compromises, and may work to put pressure on him to avoid these. The important question is which group will be most prominent.

Frances Fox Piven has some interesting thoughts about this in The Nation:

Let's face it: Barack Obama is not a visionary or even a movement
leader. He became the nominee of the Democratic Party, and then went on
to win the general election, because he is a skillful politician. That
means he will calculate whom he has to conciliate and whom he can ignore
in realms dominated by big-money contributors from Wall Street, powerful
business lobbyists and a Congress that includes conservative Blue Dog
and Wall Street-oriented Democrats. I don't say this to disparage Obama.
It is simply the way it is, and if Obama was not the centrist and
conciliator he is, he would not have come this far this fast, and he
would not be the president-elect.

Still, the conditions that influence politicians can change. The
promises and hopes generated by election campaigns sometimes help to
raise hopes and set democratic forces in motion that break the grip of
politics as usual. I don't mean that the Obama campaign operation is
likely to be transformed into a continuing movement for reform. A
campaign mobilization is almost surely too flimsy and too dependent on
the candidate to generate the weighty pressures that can hold
politicians accountable. Still, the soaring rhetoric of the campaign;
the slogans like "We are the ones we have been waiting for"; the huge,
young and enthusiastic crowds–all this generates hope, and hope fuels
activism among people who otherwise accept politics as usual.

Piven goes on to describe how the New Deal was not part of the Democrats' platform in 1932, but was forced on them by mass protests in the Great Depression. Unless we really are in for a repeat of that era, it is hard to envisage any comparable popular revolt changing the direction of the country. Nonetheless, the historical point is instructive. If grassroots Democrats put as much energy into post-election activism as they did into the campaign, they really can bring about the change Obama has made them hope for.

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