The Anti-War Dilemma: How To Protest A President You Trust

TEMPE, ARIZONA - During the Bush era, peace protests were presupposed. If the President of the United States showed up anywhere, so did the protesters. Now that Barack Obama has taken over the helm, though, peace activists are debating and rehashing protest strategies and often not protesting at all.

"Does this mean we just give Obama a free pass, no matter what he does?"

Two nights ago, this was the overarching question when a local chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America debated whether they should endorse an anti-war protest when President Obama delivers the commencement address at Arizona State University (ASU) this Wednesday. After all, one of the planks of the organization is peace, but they are also a partisan organization (hence the word 'Democrat' in the name) that supports Obama.

In recent years, peace protests have focused on military action in Iraq. Opposition to war in Afghanistan was not as widespread because the Taliban in Afghanistan were linked directly to 9/11. Yet most peace activists object to what they see as an escalation of war in Afghanistan by the Obama administration. Some believe a Republican president would have pulled out of Iraq within a similar time frame as Obama.

So, why the lack of enthusiasm for protesting Obama's warfare policies?

For most, it seems to boil down to trust. For the first time in decades (for many, the first time in their lives), a considerable number of peace activists trust the President of the United States.

"We need to give him a chance," one activist beseeches, "I really believe that he is doing the best he can. He has only been in office 100 days."

Most Obama supporters also believe that Obama has kept his promises in regards to military action. He has made strides toward an independent Iraq, and he is working to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Some want "protests" at presidential events to be transformed into "rallies" where activists thank the president rather than picketing. They suggest peace activists bring signs that convey a positive message, such as, "Thank you for your efforts toward peace," rather than the more contentious signs that have been routinely brandished by protesters on the nightly news.

Dan O'Neal, the Arizona Coordinator of the Progressive Democrats of America, was a strong proponent of a protest at the ASU commencement but conceded the action did not have to be called a protest. He pointed out that when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with labor leaders and progressives after his election, he told them that he agreed with them and then said, "Now make me do it."

O'Neal says, "We want the progressive in Obama to come bouncing out," but says that the newly inaugurated president will be pulled from both sides -- the right and left. "We want Obama to be successful, and the only way he can be successful is if we keep pulling him back to the left. We're doing this to make him a better president."

Although Obama is seen as a centrist within the Democratic party, those on the left undoubtedly want to continually pull him toward the left -- just as those on the right want to pull him further toward the right.

Liz Hourican of Code Pink says, "This is a new question. All peace organizations are going to have to rethink our strategies." She acknowledges that having a president who is friendlier to their cause changes the nature of presidential protests, and believes that all peace organizations are going to have to ask themselves, "What is the one message that we would like to share?"

Obama's presidency has not only complicated the anti-war message, but has also made it more difficult to turn out the large numbers that the movement enjoyed during the latter Bush years. Over the weekend, Code Pink held their annual 24-hour Mother's Day Vigil for Peace in Lafayette Park across from the White House. It was the first time since 2006 that they asked people from outside the Washington area to attend. Just over a hundred people showed up to the event according to organizers, a stark contrast to the thousands that Code Pink enjoyed in 2006.

Liz Hourican still plans to be a part what she calls "peace actions" at the ASU commencement Wednesday. She is careful not to use the word "protest" and encourages fellow activists to make actions during the Obama's visit more positive. She told her fellow activists, "I am going to get there early, get my spot, and make sure that I talk to everyone I can. I'm going to get signatures, email addresses, and really expand my network."

Code Pink worked with a coalition of local peace groups to come to a consensus on messaging. Then volunteers spent Saturday afternoon making signs to carry at ASU with two basic, nonconfrontational messages, "War is taxing" and "Peace is priceless."

Hourican says it is more important to build support toward a critical mass than to make protests an outlet for anger and emotions, "Is it more important to be mad or to appeal to people who are not in our group? The bigger picture is way beyond us."

For some, reticence on Obama's Afghanistan policy is more strategic than earnest. Many progressives feel that other priorities -- like the economy -- must take precedence. They worry that protesting Obama at this juncture could divide (and conquer) those who support a more liberal agenda overall. The economic crisis and an ambitious domestic agenda is often the overriding reason for activists to compromise on Afghanistan.

"It's not about disagreeing with Obama. It's about the way we disagree. How we, as progressives, are perceived by the rest of the Democratic Party," said one local activist who was concerned that if local chapters of Progressive Democrats of America protested against Obama, their message might be lost. "Even worse," she said, "the group could be seen as the fringe wing of the party."