Things are pretty grim among progressives these days, what with health care bogging down and climate legislation on indefinite delay; right wing crazies everywhere and Blue Dogs intransigent; the organized coalition that brought Obama to office fractured and ineffective. Disillusionment is in the air.
In response, on listservs and private conversations, I’m hearing more and more people express some version of the following sentiment: Barack Obama should save us. According to this line of thinking, if Obama really got serious, got his messaging right, did a really good speech, exercised his extraordinary popularity with the American people, he could right the ship for his two main domestic initiatives, both of which are drifting perilously close to the shoals.
It’s understandable. Everyone still remembers the extraordinary high of the campaign, the rare and almost forgotten feeling of being genuinely moved by a civic-minded politician. Everyone wants that high back, as an escape from the lies, bottlenecks, and general unpleasantness that now beset us.
But let me be blunt: Barack Obama is not our magic negro. He’s not Bagger Vance. He hasn’t come along to teach the ornery white folk the error of their ways. He’s just the president, a centrist Democrat embedded in a power structure replete with roadblocks and constraints. The president, even an extraordinarily popular president, can only do so much. Making one more speech won’t have any effect on Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) or Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). It won’t reduce the money pouring from dirty energy companies into congressional coffers. It won’t change anybody’s mind at a teabagging rally or a dirty energy astroturfing event. This notion that Obama trying harder is the key to progressive success is just a siren song; it delays getting serious.
Along these lines, read Mike Tomasky. It’s about health care, but it applies just as well to the climate/energy fight:
So now, liberals have to fight hard for something they’re not terribly excited about. A health bill will likely have a very weak public option or it won’t have one at all. But liberals will have to battle for that bill as if it’s life and death (which in fact it will be for thousands of Americans), because its defeat would constitute a historic victory for the birthers and the gun-toters and the Hitler analogists. In the coming weeks, building toward a possible congressional vote in November, progressives will have to get out in force to show middle America that there’s support for reform as well as opposition, even though they may find the final bill disappointing.
This is what movements do—they do the hard, slow work of winning political battles and changing public opinion over time. It isn’t fun. It isn’t something Will.i.am is going to make a clever and moving video about, and it offers precious few moments for YouTube. It takes years, which is a bummer, in a political culture that measures success and failure by the hour. The end of euphoria should lead not to disillusionment, but to seriousness of purpose.
Obama can’t save progressives. They’ll save their agenda, if at all, with persistence and organizing. As it always was.