Left Out: What the Left Ignored About Barack Obama

From the farthest corners of the Far Right to the most radical niches of the Progressive Left, these days it seems as if just about everyone is upset with President Barack Obama. Polls taken this summer show that the public "is losing trust" in the president, while Obama’s personal approval rating has fallen below 60 percent. Worse still, politically speaking, a Washington Post/ABC News survey reported in July that support for the president’s leadership on several key issues has fallen below 50 percent and a new Public Strategies Inc./POLITICO poll finds that confidence in Obama’s ability to identify the right solutions to problems facing the country has dropped off significantly.

Despite all the lamenting from the Left that our barely tenured president isn’t living up to the progressive image he supposedly projected during the 2008 campaign, what’s really surprising is that progressives seem so surprised. Obama’s decision to continue the Bush administration’s practice of dodging judicial scrutiny of extraordinary rendition and torture is only one of many examples of how the Left’s refusal to see Obama in anything resembling a realistic light – or, for that matter, to demand more of Obama during the ’08 campaign – has backfired on them.

Constitutional law and civil rights litigator, Glenn Greenwald summed up the problem in his column at Salon.com: "So many progressives were misled about what Obama is and what he believes," he wrote. "But it wasn’t Obama who misled them. It was their own desires, their eagerness to see what they wanted to see rather than what reality offered."

Warning Signs Ignored

The current state of national disillusionment cannot be blamed on a shortage of information – nor, for that matter, on Obama himself. Despite the Left’s ‘ignore-ance’ of the facts, Obama’s career in the US Senate received plenty of coverage. Back in those days, Obama was widely – and more realistically – viewed as more of a player than a progressive and certainly as more of a centrist than a Leftist.

One blogger from Obama’s state of Illinois, who described Obama as a "social conservative," observed, "Anyone who paid full attention in the run-up to the election – and especially those of us who had him as a Senator before that – knows that while he’s smart, generally fair-minded, and a solid Democrat, he wasn’t about to start any revolutions. What we got is basically what he sold us: a change of party and a change of rhetoric, not a change of the system. Unfortunately, I think many of us were so eager for change that we built him up to be the ideal progressive candidate…"

It is not a secret that Obama earned his stripes as a team player during his brief tenure as a US Senator. In November, 2005, Obama displayed his political savvy when he partnered first with Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN)) and then Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to introduce two successful initiatives bearing his name. Lugar-Obama expanded the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction concept to conventional weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles and anti-personnel mines.

Obama told the truth during the ’08 campaign, when he said he would "take action within Pakistan’s borders, even without their permission." He made it clear then that he planned to ramp up Bush’s ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan, albeit under a different label. That he kept his word should come as no surprise. The portents, too numerous to miss (or list) abounded during the campaign.

In August, 2007, then-Senator Obama gave a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans," he warned. "They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al-Qaida leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will."

"Once elected to the US Senate … [Obama’s] anti-war voice became muted," wrote Stephen Zunes in January, 2008 for Foreign Policy in Focus. "Obama supported unconditional funding for the Iraq War in both 2005 and 2006. And – despite her false testimonies before Congress and her mismanagement of Iraq policy before, during, and after the US invasion in her role as National Security Advisor – Obama broke with most of his liberal colleagues in the Senate by voting to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state … Obama didn’t even make a floor speech on the war until a full year after his election. In it, he called for a reduction in the number of US troops but no timetable for their withdrawal. In June 2006, he voted against an amendment by Senators Russ Feingold and John Kerry for such a timetable."

The Complexity of Hope

During the ’08 presidential campaign, many on the Left who should have known better chose to ignore Obama’s checkered political record in the interest of the ‘greater good.’ That may be understandable in light of the available alternative(s) at the time. But rather than complain after the fact, the more constructive approach now would be to push harder than ever on the president and Congressional Democrats. But then, progressives have never been accused of being quick studies – or even of being particularly progressive. To understand the dimensions of the problem, one need look no further than the current debate on healthcare ‘reform’ or the latest iteration of Waxman-Markey (energy and climate legislation).

In December, 2008, Peter Baker wrote in the New York Times: "The mixed emotions on the Left reflect a larger uncertainty about how to view Mr. Obama. Although … many liberals flocked to his campaign, Obama ran more on inspiration than ideology and has not always adopted the orthodoxy of the Left. He proposed expanding health care coverage but does not favor a government-run single-payer system. He has criticized the Bush counterterrorism policies but voted for a compromise surveillance bill."

In January, 2009, an article in the Economist grappled with the Obama dilemma: "It has been only two-and-a-half months since Mr Obama was elected, but his ‘Yes, We Can’ coalition is already fraying at the edges … Anti-war activists, who rallied round him in the Democratic primaries because he was the only top-tier candidate to have opposed the Iraq war from the outset, now see worrying signs that their hero is a closet hawk. On the stump, he used to say things like: ‘I will bring this war to an end in 2009. So don’t be confused.’ Now he says it might take a bit longer. To make matters worse, he has kept George Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, in his job." At about the same time, the Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel pointed out that, "Not a single member of Obama’s foreign-policy [and] national-security team opposed the war."

Back then, David Corn, Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones, wrote, "Progressives are – depending on whom you ask – disappointed, irritated or fit to be tied." But, he added, "there’s no rebellion yet at hand" because the Left still is hoping that Mr. Obama will hijack the establishment to advance liberal causes." Yet no such hijacking has taken place, and today, the number of disillusioned hopefuls is reflected not only in editorials and polls, but in the blogosphere. Indeed, the hope referenced by Mother Jones’ David Corn seems to have greatly diminished, if not downright disappeared.

Hope has been a major theme throughout Obama’s life, as well as his political career. His book, ‘The Audacity of Hope’ was an international bestseller and his ‘hope quotes’ can be found all over the worldwide web. "We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope," Obama once said. "But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope."

"The Obama camp successfully tapped into Gen Y’s feelings of instability and disillusionment and offered a long overdue message of hope that empathized with our sentiments and worn-out distrust of the current system," writes self-described Gen-y’er Sarah McClutchy at SpliceToday.com.

The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized

Referencing the Obama campaign’s success at exploiting the tech-savvy ways of (mostly upper middle class) Gen-y’ers, McClutchy writes: "Obama’s key aides and consultants realized that these tools and the global interconnectivity of Gen Y would be integral to the success of its grass-roots campaign and accordingly, [they] launched the most successful e-campaign yet seen."

That may well be. But despite the corporate hype, texting and tweeting on trendy, overpriced, hi-tech toys hardly constitutes a political movement. And while much has been made of the ‘cyber-revolution,’ the entrenched political classes – along with their agendas – will remain that way as long as ‘cyber-activists’ confine their views to the realm of cyberspace.

That’s something NASA scientist and climate activist James Hansen understands all too well. No stranger to disillusionment, Hansen was one of the first whistleblowers to challenge the Bush administrations’ position on climate change. He was subsequently subjected by the administration to a vicious – but ultimately failed – letter-writing campaign, designed to gag, slander and discredit both the scientist himself and his scientific conclusions. Today Hansen continues to write and ‘work within the system,’ but he has increasingly focused his efforts on ‘direct action.’ Like Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. before him, Dr. Hansen seems to recognize that there is simply no substitute for the hard physical work of grassroots action.

Information technology undoubtedly played a major role in the 2008 presidential election by allowing (at least a segment of) the voting population to communicate and connect with one another in ways that heretofore would not have been possible. As we are so often reminded, the internet – with all of its adjuncts – has ‘revolutionized’ not only the political process, but the ways in which people socialize, organize and ‘gather.’ But the real revolution won’t happen on the worldwide web. And until progressives are willing to break away from the virtual comfort of cyberspace and put their principles to work in the real world, ‘change we can believe in’ – like hope itself – will remain little more than words on a bumper sticker.

Sandy LeonVest is the editor and publisher of SolarTimes, an independent quarterly energy newspaper with a progressive slant. SolarTimes is available online at www.solartimes.org, and distributed in hardcopy throughout the Bay Area and beyond. Sandy LeonVest’s work has been published locally, as well as internationally, and includes 15 years in the news department at KPFA Radio in Berkeley, CA.

Photo reprinted from Flickr by Thirty30 Photography