This letter was published in The Nation [October 11, 2010 print edition]:
The "Debating Obama" forum spotlighted some big obstacles to progressive change, but the discourse was notably hazy about presidential accountability for calamitous policies. It was a bad sign that the word "Afghanistan" did not appear anywhere in the forum's seven pages. (What would we say about a "Debating Johnson" forum in August 1966 that didn't mention Vietnam?) Whatever the limits to the president's options, he wields gargantuan power—and makes fateful choices.
While the political terrain is cemented with structural factors, no systemic analysis should absolve government leaders of moral responsibility or basic accountability. "The system" may be to blame, but since when does that let the president—or anyone else—off the hook?
After eighteen months, we should be discussing how progressives might try to bell this cat—a president who has clearly embraced what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the madness of militarism," in tandem with an array of other grim policies, including promulgation of extensive corporate agendas in the guise of "reform" and continuing encroachment on precious civil liberties like habeas corpus. The discussion is spreading inside the Democratic Party.
In mid-August, the entire leadership of the California Democratic Party's Progressive Caucus—by most measures the largest caucus in the state party—mustered a directness in addressing the president that eluded the seven writers in the Nation forum. "We worked very hard for your election as we do for all candidates who seem able and willing to work for progressive social change, and to make a better life for our citizens and for the world," the caucus's executive board wrote in a letter to President Obama. "Your rhetoric often suggests that you share this goal, but your actions frequently prove otherwise. We do not simply disagree with you on a single small issue. Unfortunately our unhappiness and disappointment has a broad scope."
The letter said, "You campaigned against the Bush imperial presidency, and then you expanded it.... In our opinion you have failed, in whole or in part, to deliver on many of your commitments. Instead, you have continued and supported some of the Bush policies that many hoped and believed, based on your utterances, you would quickly terminate." And the letter declared that presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs, like chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, "is not the real problem, Mr. President. We fear you are."
Such deep concerns are widespread—and increasingly corrosive for the Democratic base. Bleak poll data on inclinations to vote this November reflect the demoralizing and demobilizing effects of Obama's triangulation. Below the radar, many party activists are agonizing and questing for strategies as we try to prevent Republican gains and push for progressive policies. If progressives seem to be making excuses for Obama's corporate policies, it casts us as defenders of an untenable status quo—and helps corporate-funded "populists" of the right wing to masquerade as the agents of change.
NORMAN SOLOMON, national co-chair
Healthcare Not Warfare