And Now, Obama?

The withdrawal of the candidacy of former Senator John Edwards, coupled with the outcome of the Super Tuesday primaries, established that within the Democratic Party, there is a two person race for the nomination. The Super Tuesday results, more than anything, demonstrated that Senator Obama was clearly competitive with Senator Clinton. While Senator Clinton won the states she was expected to win, Senator Obama captured thirteen states, including locations where one would never have expected a victory, e.g., North Dakota.

So, let’s look at the scorecard and see where we are. No, not the delegate count, but the political scorecard. On the major issues, there is no significant difference between Obama and Clinton. Yes, there is some nuance, and, yes, Obama opposed the Iraq war. But as readers of my commentaries know, I have not discovered particularly fundamental differences.

There is a clear Obama-mania underway and there are two aspects to this that we must address head-on.

Despite this, there is a clear Obama-mania underway and there are two aspects to this that we must address head-on. On the one hand, Obama is inspiring millions with the notion of “change.” Now, the “change” that is mentioned in speech after speech is very vague. When Obama speaks in concretes, e.g., attacking Al Qaeda bases in Pakistan unilaterally, there is nothing new and different about that approach. Yet what seems to be happening is that the disgust with the Bush years, combined with a reassessment of the Clinton years, is leading many people to look for something very different. This is in part generational, but actually much deeper than that. I emphasize this point because it is easy to write off the excitement as being naiveté. There is an unfocused desire to break with what the USA has been experiencing, both domestically and internationally, and it has come to be personified in Senator Obama, almost despite himself.

The other aspect, however, is more complicated and a bit unsettling. There has been a tendency, including among some progressives, to attempt to fashion Senator Obama as something other than what he is. Over the months, I have heard progressive commentators describe Senator Obama as if he were the second coming of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his ’88 campaign. Surprisingly, Senator Obama is rarely challenged by credible progressives for the weakness of his platform and the lack of depth of his call for “change.” It’s as if we close our eyes, click our heels together, and repeat something to the effect of, the “change” will be progressive…the “change” will be progressive…

So, we are faced with this enigma. Some people, including some writers for The Black Commentator, are adamant that Senator Obama should not be supported and that he is a fraud. Others, including some writers for The Black Commentator, argue exactly the opposite. I am not going to argue the position of Solomon and suggest splitting the baby, but I will argue that critical support of the Obama campaign is an appropriate approach to take. Let me suggest why.

*First, and not in order of importance, the reality of the US electoral system and the state of progressive movements, is that we are a ways off from having a candidacy that is anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-empire - at least a candidacy who can win. Unfortunately, we are in a period where we are compelled to address the lesser of two evils. In that sense, while I do believe that we could have had a winning candidate who was better on the issues than is Senator Obama, no such candidate prevailed in the primaries.

Second, there is little question but that Senator Obama has helped to ignite excitement and an electoral upsurge, though I would not describe it as a movement, at least not at the moment. This becomes a space in which progressive-minded people can and should be pushing the content of progressive change, rather than relying on mere rhetoric.

Third, the color line. While I adamantly object to those who yell - in support of Senator Obama - that “race does not matter,” the reality is that a successful Black nominee, not to mention an elected Black president of the United States, lays the foundation for a different discussion on matters including, but not limited to, race. This does not mean that a Black person automatically makes the environment more progressive (does anyone remember the name Clarence Thomas?) but it does mean that an individual who is liberal-to-progressive can open a door for discussion. We should not expect that he will walk through that door, but others of us may very well be able to.

My conclusion, and I offer this with great caution, is that critical support for Obama is the correct approach to take. Yet this really does mean critical support. It means, among other things, that Senator Obama needs to be challenged on his views regarding the Middle East; he must be pushed beyond his relatively pale position on Cuba to denounce the blockade; he must be pushed to advance a genuinely progressive view on the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast and the right of return for the Katrina evacuees; and he must be pushed to support single payer healthcare.

As I emphasized in an earlier commentary, it is up to the grassroots to keep the candidates honest. Silence, in the name of unity, is a recipe for betrayal. What we have to keep in mind is something very simple: the other side, i.e., the political Right, always keeps the pressure on. If we do not pressure, in fact, if we do not demand, the reality is that the Right will come out on top.

To do the right thing, we must assess and appreciate Senator Obama for who he is and what he is - politically - rather than engage in wishful thinking. To do anything else is to be disingenuous to our friends and our base. Senator Obama, if elected President, will be unlikely to reveal himself to have been a closeted progressive. Yet, with pressure from the base, he may be compelled to do some of what is needed, despite himself and despite pressures to the contrary.

  • Bill Fletcher, Jr. is Executive Editor of The Black Commentator. He is also a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.