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Occupy the Campaign

April 17, 2012

Obama Has Done Less Than You Wanted, But More Than You Think

by Bill Zimmerman

ObamaMany progressive friends tell me they intend to vote for President Obama’s re-election but will not contribute or volunteer, as they did last time. The activist in me fully understands the frustration they feel. I, too, was hoping for an FDR moment when Obama took office. But the political professional in me prefers a more strategic response.

Like some of my friends, I’ve been a committed activist for fifty years. Unlike them, I’ve worked for the past thirty-seven as a political campaign manager and media consultant, work that put me in the leadership of some two hundred election campaigns for every office from city council to the White House.

Progressive activists campaigned hard for Obama in 2008, but later felt that neither their enthusiasm nor their support were properly rewarded. Some attribute the failure to a political sleight-of-hand by Obama. I do not. I see it, at least in part, as a result of our own passivity. After the election, we waited for Obama to do what we had failed to do: enact a single-payer healthcare system, tax the rich, re-regulate Wall Street, and so on. Meanwhile, Tea Party activists pushed the national debate much farther to the right.

This time around, rather than withdrawing, progressives have an opportunity to play a much more significant role in the re-election campaign — but as progressives, not merely as Obama campaign workers. That opportunity has been provided by Occupy Wall Street, which has also given us some excellent new tools.

Their success at pushing the “1 percent vs. 99 percent” theme has focused attention on class consciousness for the first time in almost a century. This gives progressives an agenda that will resonate with the public and can be used to pressure the Obama administration after the election. Demands to tax the rich, regulate the financial sector, reduce wealth disparity, and end the influence of big money on politics all further the interests of the Obama campaign. That creates the opportunity for a temporary strategic alliance: By supporting Obama’s re-election as a means to advance the progressive agenda, even though that agenda goes beyond his present positions, and by also assisting the popular movement to expand upon the Occupy protests, we have an opportunity to create much wider exposure for our views.

Occupy Wall Street gave us another gift. They created an “Occupy” franchise that allows any of us anywhere to stage demonstrations and bask to some extent in their media magnetism. Last fall, at city halls and on campuses across the country, people did just that. Now we can do more. We can support whatever ongoing occupations occur, but since only a few among us can be full-time participants, we can also stage rallies and demonstrations that urge Obama to take more progressive positions than he has already, especially in policy areas where we have common ground. In other words, in the coming six months, we have an opportunity to “occupy the campaign.”

For this approach to work, progressives must put aside any hostility they may feel toward Obama or government in general. We all know that a government elected for the most part with money from the 1 percent will not, on its own, enact progressive reform. But it is equally true that we need the power of government, specifically elected Democrats, to achieve our agenda. As we build a progressive movement outside of government, we will need them to pass our reforms, just as the civil rights movement needed them to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Elected government is a tool. It is not the enemy. It’s the only means by which working Americans can protect themselves on a capitalist playing field heavily tilted toward the wealthy, the only means by which the 1 percent can be forced to pay their fair share, the only way to break the power of the oil companies and create a clean energy future.

Obama’s re-election is a necessary step toward achieving our own goals. Without it, we will be set back for years, possibly decades. Our best strategy for the long term is to embrace Obama’s campaign while we simultaneously try to marry as much of it as possible to a progressive agenda. We can educate other Obama supporters about the need for progressive reform, and we can influence those running Obama’s campaign to incorporate progressive goals into their agenda. It’s a bit of cooptation, so often used against us, instead of confrontation, which we have so often used against others.

In 2008, many of us postponed demands for specific progressive solutions like single-payer or immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan to serve the greater good of purging the White House of Republican politicians. From a strategic standpoint, we were right to do that. This time around, we can make our participation contingent upon a far more forceful presentation of our politics, provided we remain under the Occupy umbrella and constantly frame our activism as being on behalf of the 99 percent.

But we have to keep in mind that this is a political campaign. We cannot win any genuine progressive reforms between now and November. Attacks on Obama for being insufficiently progressive will not further our agenda; they will retard it. We can use this campaign season, and the added clout we have because of the Occupy movement, to inject progressive values and objectives deeper into the national consciousness. If we succeed and Obama wins, we will then have an easier time shifting the political debate to the left so that the voters, the media, the Congress, and the administration will be more open to progressive solutions.

This approach will not work if there is ambivalence about Obama’s re-election. As a result, I feel compelled to address more directly the disappointment and even hostility that some friends on the left have come to feel. I do not do this as an apologist for the administration. I agree that Obama appointed the wrong people to manage the economic recovery and that he has failed to use the bully pulpit to educate voters about the underlying causes of our problems.

Nonetheless, I know that presidents cannot enact progressive reform by fiat. They must govern from the middle, the inevitable result of a two-party system that holds elections at preset intervals. Such elections can only be mere oscillations between center-right and center-left governments, as all candidates must strive to capture the moderate middle that determines electoral outcomes. It is simply naïve to think that any president can govern from the left under current conditions.

Furthermore, it is not correct, as some argue, that progressives elected Obama. Actually, moderates did that. Progressives turned out in large numbers, but Obama’s victories in Florida and Ohio were what put him over the top, and while progressives do reside in those states, far more Democrats there tilt conservative. Three other unexpected victories in Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia put the icing on the cake, but they can hardly be attributed to progressives.

In most presidential elections, about 10 percent of the voters remain undecided in early October. Imagine how disconnected, unsophisticated, and apolitical these undecided voters must be! They’ve been bombarded by advertising and media coverage, but can’t make up their minds. Yet if you are running a campaign, these are the voters you care about most, because they will decide the election. Like it or not, they are your most important constituency — and they are not progressives.

Nor is it correct, in my view, that if Obama had forcefully advocated for progressive reforms — for example by pushing for single-payer insurance — he could have moved the country to the left. I managed a California ballot initiative to create a single-payer system in 1994. We started with over 70 percent support. After the big money propaganda onslaught from the health insurance industry, we got 27 percent on Election Day. Hillary Clinton had a similar experience when her healthcare reform went down in flames and led to the rise of Newt Gingrich. If Obama had stepped out on single-payer, he might have been slapped down hard, sapping his political capital on other fronts. It was a judgment call, and he was probably in a better position to make it than any of us.

Presidential power is more limited than many surmise. Beyond the usual limits, Obama’s power was even more circumscribed by a financial meltdown, a staggering deficit, a hostile Supreme Court, a House of Representatives burdened by too many conservative Democrats (replaced in 2010 by too many conservative Republicans), and a country rapidly moving rightward.

There’s an old story that illustrates this reality. As President Truman turned the reins of government over to former General Eisenhower, he is rumored to have said about him, “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It won’t be a bit like the Army.” Given how much the federal government has ballooned since Truman’s day, the limits on the President’s power are today greater than ever.

Finally, to those friends so alienated by Obama that they are considering boycotting the election or supporting a third-party candidate, I will say: Given that the vast majority of those who might join a boycott live in New York, California, Massachusetts, and Illinois — all states where the outcome of the presidential vote is known in advance — the impact of a boycott will be negligible. As for third-party campaigns, most of them recruit no one new to a progressive viewpoint, and have no impact on anything (I write this as one who managed Barry Commoner’s 1980 presidential campaign on the Citizens’ Party ticket, which proved to be a waste of time). Those that do have an impact are dangerous, as we saw in Florida in 2000, when Nader’s candidacy gave us the war in Iraq, tax breaks for the rich, and the 2008 recession.

In the end, while I share a good deal of disappointment about the administration, I believe that Obama has actually achieved a great deal despite having to confront more severe obstacles and limitations than any recent predecessor. While his health care reform is less than I wanted, it achieves everything included in Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful Patient Bill of Rights, including an end to denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions and a cap on out-of-pocket expenses. Obama also reversed the ban on federal funding to foreign organizations that allow abortion, saved the domestic automobile industry, put the U.S. back on a path toward nuclear disarmament, pulled all combat troops out of Iraq, prevented an economic depression, enforced equal pay for women, removed restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research, and ended torture as official policy. (To see lists of hundreds of Obama’s other accomplishments in office, Google “President Obama’s accomplishments.” Readers with a sense of humor may appreciate this as well.)

Therefore I disagree with those who say they will only vote for Obama but do no more. Surely, we have now seen enough of the possible Republican alternatives to understand that were he to lose, our government would come under the control of an American brand of religious fundamentalism, complete its decline into corporate oligarchy, and likely fall into an unrecoverable graveyard spiral. Under such a threat, is it not incumbent upon all of us to do whatever is necessary to prevent it? I can’t think of any political objective that can actually be achieved in the next six months that could claim a higher priority on my time and work. So instead of staying stuck in my disappointment, I’m going to do everything in my power to re-elect Obama in the short run and try simultaneously to help build a progressive destiny for our nation in the years that follow.

Bill Zimmerman is the author of Troublemaker: A Memoir from the Front Lines of the ’60s (Doubleday). He holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago and is one of the nation’s most experienced political consultants.