Between Barack and a Hard Place | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Let's be honest: We didn't vote for the Barack Obama his campaign advertised. We didn't vote for an African-American man, nor for a U.S. senator from Illinois, nor for a father, a husband, an activist or a young politician.

We voted for the Barack Obama we fantasized -- the progressive miracle worker. We voted for Change. Millions of us stood up and shouted, handed out fliers, talked to our neighbors, donated hard-earned money and drove people to the polls for Change. We screamed, hugged, kissed and cried when we learned Change had come to America. We knew Change wouldn't come overnight, that it would take time, but we were excited that we had elected a man who was open to Change, who said he wanted to consider real people's needs while in the Oval Office. We eagerly awaited the first hints of Change, as the president-elect's transition developed.

And now, we have reason to worry that Change is not coming to America after all. For nearly two years we were encouraged to "Be the Change you want to see in America." It is now obvious that we have a ways to go toward being that Change. And so does President Barack Obama. And that, above all else, needs to Change.

It was not the Democratic base, nor the centrists, nor even the center-left, who put Obama where he is today. The progressive movement rose from near death and kept Obama alive in the primary, eventually proving stubborn enough to carry him to victory over the establishment candidate. And then, in the general election, it was the progressives whose energy infected the nation, whose enthusiasm reminded longtime vote-the-ticket Dems that elections were about the future, and whose contributions, tiny as each individual one was, funded the revolution of Change that swept Obama into the Oval Office.

Now is the time to hold him accountable, because now that he's in office, he will be surrounded by the trappings of power, the machinery of state and the inertia of bureaucracy. If we are to reach him, we must act quickly. Though he has shown us that he's not who we thought he was (for the record, we did know he wasn't the Messiah), he has also, fortunately, shown us the way to keeping him -- and our country -- on the right track.

What's Gone Wrong

Obama's fall from progressive grace goes beyond the campaign-season disappointment of his support for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the warrantless-wiretapping law strongly opposed by liberal activists and civil libertarians.

Progressives have a variety of objections, largely relating to flip-flops (warrantless wiretapping), climb-downs (withdrawal from Iraq and taxing the ultra-rich) and betrayals (keeping Bushies like Robert Gates anywhere near the halls of power). Many also object to a return of Clintonites, who while certainly Democrats, were hardly progressives in many areas.

While a CNN poll showed that 80 percent of Americans approved of Obama's post-election transition moves, some progressives became increasingly restless. They objected loudly enough to warrant a Huffington Post talking-to from legendary Democratic strategist (and Obama adviser) Steve Hildebrand.

"This is not a time for the left wing of our party to draw conclusions about the cabinet and White House appointments that President-Elect Obama is making. Some believe the appointments generally aren't progressive enough," he wrote. But Hildebrand accused naysayers of being impotent and shortsighted. "After all, he was elected to be the president of all the people -- not just those on the left."

But that plea for patience and tolerance wore ever thinner as we watched the transition unfold. Perhaps Obama's most egregious mistake in the eyes of progressives is his decision to surround himself with decidedly unprogressive national-security and foreign-policy advisers. In part, that list reads like a Clinton-era roster -- which is troubling because, as United Nations correspondent Barbara Crossette wrote in The Nation last April, "The Clinton record ... is anything but stellar in global or even U.S. security terms. ... In many ways the 1990s were a wasted decade in international relations."

Most notably, there's Hillary Clinton herself, our new Secretary of State, who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, who has been called "a hawk among hawks," who pointed approvingly at humanitarian interventionist actions like the one her husband initiated in Kosovo in 1999. Obama's team of advisers includes several other returnees from the Clinton administration, such as Michele Flournoy, Susan Rice (recently named U.S. ambassador to the U.N.), Richard Holbrooke, Anthony Lake and Madeleine Albright -- all of whom have been neoliberal hawks to one degree or other.

While a return to Clinton-era foreign relations is a certainly a change from destructive Bush-era policies, it is not Change writ large. Not to mention the fact that another segment of Obama's national-security squad is rounded out by center-righties with firm Bush-era roots, such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who will stay on as a holdover from the Bush administration, and national-security adviser Jim Jones, a former adviser to John McCain.

What will these choices mean when it comes time to make big decisions about closing Guantanamo Bay prison, or about withdrawing from Iraq, or about increasing troops in Afghanistan?

"Obama's argument -- that his center-conservative cabinet will carry out radical change if he orders them to do so -- is denied by recent history," writes Ted Rall in Maui Times Weekly. "The U.S. government, as micromanager Jimmy Carter learned, is too big for the president to manage on his own. And, as George W. Bush learned after 2000, the people you hire are more likely to change you than you are to change them."

On the economy, as well, Obama has made some critical missteps. It's not just that Lawrence Summers, Obama's pick for head of the White House National Economic Council, is a Clinton-era economist who oversaw the same policies that got us into the financial mess we're in today (or that his record on gender equality is iffy at best). Two of Obama's largest policy backpedals during the campaign were economic.

First, he adopted a more cautious stance on rolling back tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 a year. Rather than taking the bold step of repealing those, he now says he'll just let them expire as scheduled at the end of 2010. Then, citing the sharp decrease in oil prices from this summer's record levels, he shelved his plan to tax oil-company windfall profits. Liberal blogger and columnist David Sirota had this to say: "[I]f oil prices are down and oil industry profits are truly down, what's the harm in passing a windfall profits tax? Even if you buy the right-wing nonsense about a windfall profits tax 'hurting the industry' or 'hurting the economy' when it is applied, if there really are no windfall profits to tax, then it won't be applied."


What's Going Right-Ish

It is true that Obama is doing some stuff we thought he would do, although not always in as gung-ho a way as we might like.

Consider "Your Seat at the Table," a special section of the Obama transition team's Web site, There, average-Joe Internet browsers can read policy recommendations from high-powered lobbying organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, various environmental groups, the National Education Association and HIV/AIDS activists. This is obviously in keeping with the team's promise of transparency.

Other bright spots have been Obama's weekly YouTube addresses, and the announcement of an Office of Urban Policy, which could have big implications for the economy, the environment and urban education. He's focused his economic efforts on preventing foreclosures. And while some of his adviser picks are ideologically questionable, there are enough women on the list that some pundits have suggested, as A.J. Rossmiller did in The New Republic, that Obama is "ushering in a feminist revolution in foreign policy and national security."

Some of Obama's appointments have been downright heartening. The selection of Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu to head the Department of Energy, for example, signals a sharp departure from the days of head-in-the-sand climate change non-leadership from the federal government. Chu, an experienced outsider -- seemingly unbeholden to any interest, other than science -- is an ideal pick, the type we hoped we'd see more of from the Obama-Biden administration.

But the most important achievement so far is that Obama has managed (mostly) to keep our nation's optimism afloat. Despite Blagojevich, despite the auto-industry-bailout mess, despite the public's generally pessimistic outlook, Obama is still enjoying higher ratings than any recent predecessor. He's courting doubters while making sure that his base gives him the benefit of the doubt. That's Change.


Not There Yet

The question becomes whether Obama will be a servant to his advisers, or whether he will learn from their experience, absorb their suggestions and yet ultimately go his own, progressive, way.

As his administration gets under way, we'll assess his progress. With education, Obama was under pressure from conflicting pro-union and reform interests. One of his top transition-team education advisers was Linda Darling-Hammond, who had the support of teachers' unions, and is somewhat notorious for her stances against Teach for America and No Child Left Behind. Instead, he eventually chose Chicago public-school superintendent Arne Duncan -- who is more reform-minded (generally favoring concepts such as merit-based teacher pay, charter schools and high-stakes testing), but has questionable classroom bona-fides.

There's also the whole question of America's relationship with food, eating and farming -- and Obama's choice as agriculture secretary will set the tone on these issues.

Obama picked former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, and while Vilsack has long been an ally of ethanol producers and agricultural giants, he is at least making some promising statements. "I absolutely see the constituency of this department as broader than those who produce our food -- it extends to those who consume it," he told The Washington Post.

Prior to Vilsack's nomination, here's what sustainable-food guru Michael Pollan told PBS host Bill Moyers about the stakes for this post: "What Obama needs to do, if he indeed wants to make change in this area -- and that isn't clear yet that he does, at least in his first term -- I think we need a food-policy czar in the White House because the challenge is not just what we do with agriculture, it's connecting the dots between agriculture and public health, between agriculture and energy and climate change, agriculture and education."

On so many questions -- How will Obama deal with terror-suspect detainees? Who will he appoint to federal courts? How will his administration address the possibly illegal maneuverings of its predecessors? -- we will simply have to wait and see. Perhaps, in this case, patience is practical.

"Sure, there's a chance that Mr. Obama, derided this past year by the right as an empty slate who tried to mean all things to all people, has simply been leading the left on and is now morphing into a rudderless pragmatist who will break their hearts," Steve Kornacki writes in the New York Observer. "But pragmatism doesn't have to be rudderless. It's just as easy to portray Mr. Obama's early moves as a sign that he will be pragmatic about pursuing progressive goals."

But there's a fine line between pragmatism and losing sight of one's principles. If Obama turns out to be "more of the same," or more like "more of the same" than he is like Change, the progressives will go back in the closet they came out of to support Obama. A generation of young people might get their hopes dashed and become cynical opters-out of the political system, like the preceding generation.


The Way Forward

How can we take back Barack?

Fortunately, Obama's campaign of Change has shown us the way to take back Barack. We need to mobilize, to communicate, to connect, even to fundraise -- and we need to be sure we get his attention, the way we got the world's attention when we voted for Change.

STEP 1: DECIDE WHAT CHANGE YOU WILL MAKE. Determine what difference you will begin making, what effort you will start making -- beyond any community involvement you're already involved in -- and get started. Make the phone calls, send the e-mails, start the conversations, around whatever it is you're going to take on: health care, education, hunger, poverty or any number of other problems facing us.

STEP 2: TELL OBAMA HIMSELF. At the White House Web site, there's a page to "participate [in] and inform the work of the President." Make sure Obama knows that your vision is for Change, and what you are doing. But don't stop there. Writer letters asking for support, demanding Change and send them to the White House, Washington DC 20500.

STEP 3: TELL EVERYONE YOU KNOW. Post Change-seeking comments on blogs, forums, social networks and even real-world bulletin boards. Talk about what you are doing for Change -- and how others can help -- at bars, business functions, book-group meetings and every other social event you attend. (Remember how much you did this before Nov. 4? Just do the same thing again!)

STEP 4: JOIN THE COLLECTIVE EFFORT. Print out "Take Back Barack" logos, make them into bumper stickers, put icons on your Web site and social-networking pages, make signs and put them in your windows or on your front lawn. Host parties and neighborhood get-togethers to talk about your projects. If there are enough of you -- and we're sure there are -- get a group together to organize a March for Change in your community. Go to Obama supporters' "Change Is Coming" meetings in your community, or start one by visiting

STEP 5: GET THE MEDIA'S ATTENTION. Call up your local alternative-weekly paper (and the local daily, if it still exists), and the local TV stations, and tell them what you're doing. Invite them to your events, and encourage them to cover the issues that are important to you.

STEP 6: USE TECHNOLOGY TO DO ALL OF THE ABOVE BETTER, FASTER AND MORE EFFECTIVELY. Create a system by which people can text and e-mail in their hopes, dreams, plans and actions from their phones and computers, and have that information forward automagically to Obama and his team. At the same time, post that information publicly elsewhere on the Internet, so we can all track the nationwide effort for Change and the increasing pressure on Obama -- and gauge the response.

STEP 7: KEEP AT IT. As much as positive energy can come from all this, there's an important negative lesson: We can never let up. Change does not happen and just stay that way. We need to work for Change each and every day of our lives, and enlist more people in the cause at every turn.

STEP 8: STAY TUNED IN. At, you can get updates on how Obama's administration is shaping up, opinions on whether his decisions and choices are progressive, and pointers to petitions and gatherings on issues you care about -- like how to push the Department of Agriculture toward more support for organic and family farms. Also, follow Jeff Inglis's TakeBackBarack RSS feed, with multiple updates daily on news and opinions from all over the globe and all across the political spectrum on Obama's progress so far.


Jeff Inglis and Deirdre Fulton are staffers at the Portland Phoenix, where a version of this article first appeared.

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