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Obama Will Break Our Hearts -- But Progressives Need to Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time

We should not give Obama an easy pass on his FISA turnaround, but progressives need to maintain a nuanced view of the relationship between electoral politics and movement building.
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When Barack Obama was on The Daily Show recently, Jon Stewart ended the program with the question, "I wonder when he'll break our hearts?" The answer should not come as a surprise to any mature progressive -- soon. With Obama's announced intention to vote for the FISA bill which will legalize much of George Bush's illegal wiretapping policies, our hearts may be broken even sooner than expected. It is particularly disappointing because Obama's FISA retreat is not just a tactical maneuver but a seeming compromise on fundamental constitutional principals -- that under the 4th Amendment, the executive should not be able to wiretap American citizens without an individualized judicial warrant. Moreover, Obama's rightward shift on FISA and several other issues may not even represent good political strategy. Instead, it may have handed Republicans the argument that Obama does not represent a new kind of politics but that he is, instead, an old-style politician with no enduring principles who will do and say anything to get elected -- a talking point that is being repeated by every McCain surrogate with a microphone the past few days.

Progressives should not give Obama an easy pass on his FISA turnaround. We must continue to stand for the 4th Amendment protections against warrantless wiretapping, criticize Obama's turnaround, challenge the constitutionality of the FISA legislation in court, and if Obama is elected, continue to build a movement to pressure Obama and a Democratic Congress to amend the FISA act to restore Constitutional protections.

However, progressives need to maintain a nuanced view of the relationship between electoral politics and movement building. Obama's and the Democratic Congress's turnaround on FISA should not lessen our determination to do everything we can to put Obama in the White House and to increase Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. But it should remind us that electing Democrats is a necessary, but not sufficient, means of bringing progressive change to America. Equally important is continuing to build local and national progressive grassroots movements that energize and engage the citizenry and pressure the elected representatives we help put in office to enact the progressive change we represent. We need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

There is, and always has been, a creative tension between electoral politics and movement building. Perhaps Obama's own background in grassroots organizing will lead him to be as open to popular mobilization as he will be to insider lobbying. On This Week With George Stephanopoulos Katrina Vanden Heuvel of the Nation related how Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins (the only woman in FDR's cabinet) went to FDR and demanded that he do more to protect the interests of workers. FDR told her to go out and mobilize the workers to make him do it. Among other things, Perkins organized a conference of labor leaders in the Secretary's suite, which developed a ten-point program to present to FDR, including abolition of child labor, higher wages for all workers, and government recognition of the right to organize. Much of this program was eventually enacted as part of the New Deal.

So electing Obama and more Democrats (and more progressive Democrats) to Congress is the beginning, not the end, of the story. If unions want labor laws that will make it easier to for workers to unionize, they will have to mobilize the strength of organized labor to overcome the resistance of the organized business community. If citizens want universal health care (and perhaps single payer health care which goes beyond what Obama has been willing to propose as a candidate), they will need to organize a mass movement to overcome the resistance of the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies. If the anti-war movement wants a relatively quick end to American military involvement in Iraq, it will have to mobilize millions of citizens to keep Obama from back-sliding.

It will not just be up to Obama and a Democratic Congress to bring about progressive change. It will be up to us to organize a progressive movement to make them do it.