Only days after the presidential election, I began receiving emails from the Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America — formerly Obama for America. Several times a week, they implored me to show my support for this or that presidential initiative, and to send money. Such an email arrived a half hour after the president delivered his health care speech last week. “Judith,” it began. “I just finished laying out my plan for health reform at a joint session of Congress. Now, I’m writing directly to you because what happens next is critical — and I need your help.”
As always, I deleted it.
Death row inmates need my help, I thought. Teenagers trying to get late-term abortions need my help. Barack Obama, presidential candidate, needed my help. And on election night, when the TV maps turned blue and a text message appeared on my cellphone signed “Your friend, Barack,” I was thrilled — and proud that I had done my part.
But President Barack Obama, Leader of the fucking free world, needs my help? Dear OFA: I’ll get back to you.
Actually, he probably does. If you doubt this, go back to YouTube and watch those Republicans glaring from the well of Congress last week, their teeth (and, probably, their buttholes) clenched as the Democrats cheered.
Still, something in me recoils at the thought of supporting the president.
It’s not that I’m disillusioned. Sure, Obama has turned out to be a centrist. That’s because he was always a centrist — bohemian mother, Kenyan father and community-organizing stint notwithstanding. Whoever thought they were voting for a man of the left had not heard a word the candidate said on the campaign trail.
It’s not that I’m disappointed, either — though I am. In the last two weeks alone, the administration has moved toward escalating the war in Afghanistan. Obama failed to defend green-jobs czar Van Jones, who was pushed to resign by right-wing nuts objecting to his respectable progressive résumé. (George W. Bush never abandoned his appointees, who were far more radical than Jones, not to mention crooks and war criminals.) And then, in the health care speech, the president pledged to fund neither abortions nor medical services for undocumented immigrants.
He threw progressives, women and “aliens” overboard to keep an agenda afloat. Yuck.
But also, what else is new?
As I said, I had no illusions, so I’m not disillusioned. I’m not disappointed by a centrist, because I didn’t expect a leftist. Truth be told, I’m still pretty blown away that a left centrist — and, let’s not forget, an African American left centrist — is president at all.
My reluctance to support Barack Obama has less to do with the person he is, or even with the positions and actions he’s taken, than with this: I just don’t like presidents.
I have never lived under a president I could admire. From Eisenhower to Bush II, I have learned that part of the job description is a personal character ranging from mediocrity to monstrosity. Kennedy was no exception. In my communist family, we hung no portraits of the sainted martyr who practically took us to war against Cuba and launched the U.S. engagement in Vietnam.
But my distaste isn’t all about individuals. I have a hard time supporting the president because he is the president — or rather, President.
The President is not just a person. He is a symbol. He stands for the United States of America, a beautiful ideal corrupt in virtually every function, from its criminal “justice” system to the corporate ownership of its elected officials. The President stands for the global power of the United States, for its militarism and economic domination. The President stands for government. And, in spite of my late advocacy of a more robust welfare state, government arouses a profound skepticism in this old anarchist.
In fact, until 1980, nine years after I became eligible, I didn’t honor the presidency with so much as a ballot. “Don’t vote,” we used to say. “It only encourages them.” I had no time for encouraging them. I was in the streets discouraging them from doing most everything they wanted to do. That I personally despised practically every man behind the Oval Office desk only made this political opposition feel more cogent.
But now I vote — and, for the first time, voted for a person I fervently wanted in the Oval Office. I’m encouraging him. So the question becomes, Encourage him to do what, and how? Put another way, how can a radical support a centrist president and not sell her skeptical soul? Here are a few thoughts.
1. Be realistic. Progressives have been floundering between feeling reluctant to criticize the man they worked to elect and carping on the sidelines because he’s not the man they (naïvely) thought he would be. We didn’t get a leftist president because a leftist candidate’s chances of winning the 2008 U.S. election were about equal to my chances of winning the 2009 U.S. Open. The same centrist populace elected Congress. It goes without saying that whatever health care bill they pass will be greatly inferior to what progressives — and even the president — want. It will also be better than what we’ve got.
2. Be strategic. In spite of his rhetoric, Obama will not be the last president to deal with this mess. This bill is only the beginning. Failure to pass it could destroy the Democratic majority and, with it, the chance to continue working. We will hate portions of this bill, and must tell our representatives we won’t give up, for instance, on full access for all, including the undocumented, and on comprehensive reproductive services, including abortion. Then we should tell them to vote yes. The perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
3. Be consistent. One day I get an email from MoveOn.org exhorting me to oppose any bill without a public option in it. The next day, I’m asked to tell my representative to vote for whatever gets to the floor. This isn’t strategy; it’s Tweeting.
4. Be radical. The right has always been great at rewarding legislators for each intermediate step toward the radical ideal. At the same time, its activists remind elected officials that they won’t settle for one slice of a loaf. This persistent, uncompromising agitation has paid off in moving popular sentiment, discourse, legislation — and presidents — to the right. Progressives should similarly keep their eyes on the prize. The good should not be the enemy of the perfect.
5. I shock myself by saying it, but … support the president. One of the most endearing qualities of candidate Obama was his insistence that the campaign was about us, not him. Now, a president is not the same as a candidate; an executive is not a community organizer. The president’s job is to lead, and Obama’s collectivist spirit may be a mask for his timidity in doing so. This week, liberal pundits are kicking him for playing golf this summer while town halls burned. They wonder whether his decision to act “presidential” has come too late.
Still, leadership is nothing more than getting other people to do things. Obama’s instinctual style of leadership is the kind that does not dictate but inspires, that is more about community than command. If it’s the kind of leadership a leftist can love, that should be no surprise. He learned it from us.
If we sit on our hands now, embracing our radical marginality and rejecting everything but what is impossible to get — a single-payer system — we will not only sink the chances for a better health care system. We will also send the message that there is only one kind of leader: the “decider.” We will implicitly renounce the brand of leadership the left has been cultivating since the ’60s.
What makes following, or collaborating with, Obama easier is that this guy likes us; he knows we’re his people. In Minneapolis this weekend, the rapturous crowd cheered the loudest when he talked about the public option. He told them they were a lot more fun than Congress. The rally ended with him leading the chant “We’re Fired Up! And Ready to Go!” One woman told NPR that impetus for reform “has to come from the bottom up, not the top down.”
It has to come from both. We need President Obama’s help, and he needs ours.
Voting only encourages them. But this election seems to have discouraged us, the citizens, from holding our winner to his promises. Just as this health care bill is only the beginning of reform, voting is the beginning, not the end, of activism. By encouraging — that is, lending courage to — the president, we may actually get what we elected him for. In the process we may begin to redeem, even transform, the Presidency of the United States.