Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Making the Cynic Smile: The Movement Behind Obama and the Possibility of Change

Let me get this out of the way. I do not buy into the hype about Barack Obama. His grand, sweeping speeches each become less detailed than the prior ones, and this rhetoric will do little to change the conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia, the Caucuses, or improve our rapidly deflating economy. Much to the chagrin of many of his supporters, Obama has become more of a politician every day, from the populist progressive Illinois state senator in 2002 to the centrist US President in 2009. Yes, he is a brilliant man, an inspirational voice, and someone who has experienced a life filled with much more reality than most silver-spoon politicians. Given his progressive history (especially earlier in his political career), the tumultuous failure of the neoliberal and neoconservative agenda suggesting the need for serious political change, and the massive level of public support, it is not hard to see why many believe Obama could be the greatest US President in history. That still does not change the fact that he is ultimately part of a government structure that gravitates to the status-quo and punishes leaders who push for big-but-necessary change. He will undoubtedly be constrained. However, after experiencing inauguration with millions in DC just a few weeks back, I saw firsthand the greatest weapon Obama has to actually create the kind of change he promised in his campaign: a legitimate movement, united behind the notion that the Washington status-quo is no longer acceptable.

Did you see the photos of the Mall? Did you watch the overhead shots on TV? Were you out there? The sheer numbers out at the inauguration events were simply incredible. The level of positive energy and political engagement was remarkable. It felt like we were in a different world. People made pilgrimages from across the country to witness the end of the nightmare that has been the Bush administration. More importantly, they came to show America, the world, and President Obama that they were there to support a new, different, and better America. This was no ordinary occasion. It was a profound moment – profound because close to 3 million people from all walks of life came together to brave the weather and the crowds to proclaim their allegiance to ideas of justice, equity, and peace. In the end, the mass of people, more than Obama, is what made the days so remarkable, and what provided hope for a better future.

It wasn’t just that people came in large numbers, though. It was how they came. It was not a conglomeration of self-congratulatory people. Yes, some had the bumper-sticker attitude, that a black man becoming President would, by itself, somehow change everything. Some did naively believe that Obama’s election wiped the laundry list of American ruthlessness at home and abroad clean. However, the vast majority had no such illusions. They held close to the (albeit vague) policies Obama had promised changes on. They understood that actions spoke louder than words, particularly in these tough times, and were willing to be the voices that pushed the Obama administration to make the right decisions. This was not a group of people basking in yesterday’s glory; they were there to push for tomorrow’s redemption. This was indeed a movement, a massive and diverse one at that.

As such, the feeling of community amongst the sea of strangers was not surprising. People were joyous and peaceful. They spontaneously sang, danced, chanted, cried, and hugged everyone in sight. The spirit was infectious. They pulled you in and kept you with them without hesitation. This is what movements do, of course. People in movements find ways to connect to each other almost instantaneously; they share goals, dreams, and beliefs, which help create a kinship with others. Despite having to walk many miles, wait in lines for hours, and deal with bitterly cold temperatures, this movement converged in full force on the congested DC streets during inauguration week.

For me, it started on the 18th, the Sunday before inauguration. I planned to meet three separate groups of friends at the “We Are One” concert on the National Mall, but that soon proved to be impossible. Not only that, but cell phone lines were jammed, so it was virtually impossible to try coordinating anything down there. Like thousands of others, though, this proved to be no problem. People found new enclaves and groups of friends on the spot. I spent the entire show hanging out with a large group people, none of whom knew each other beforehand. We sang, clapped, and cheered together. In-between performances, we talked about our political views, our own stories and backgrounds, and our reasons for being in DC for inauguration. It was remarkable how much depth and overlap there was in their responses. Over the course of the concert, we all managed to connect on a deep level.

The same environment was in place the next day. Thousands of people flooded the streets, yet you could easily have long conversations with complete strangers anywhere. Spontaneous musical performances broke out everywhere, and crowds swarmed to sing and dance together immediately. Everyone wanted to connect with each other, tell their stories, hear your stories, and share thoughts about the future. The discussions were hardly superficial. People talked about the economic stimulus package, the rule of law, education, and US foreign policy – there was almost no conversations centered on vague ideas of “hope” or “change”. These millions were not blind followers at all. Even late into the night, the conversations persisted on substance. DJs were spinning Obama speech clips into their sets into the early morning hours – and not his standard cliché-filled clips, but ones with real passion and fire. People were energized and excited, even though we all had to wake up in just a few hours to get downtown for the inauguration.

The crowds on inauguration day were hard to describe. Despite severely mismanaged security that caused some ticket holders to be denied entry to the Mall, and many of us to wait hours only to be told they were changing our gate and we had to walk three miles to get to where we needed to be, despite the fact that most people had slept for only a few hours, and despite the fact that the temperature at dawn when most of us departed for downtown was in the teens, over two million people showed up. The Mall was packed, from the Capitol Building all the way back to the Lincoln Memorial. Like the previous two days, people were joyous, excited, and engaged. We ended up by the Washington Monument, where the wind gusts were quite brutal, leaving most of us numb after a few minutes. After introducing ourselves to each other, the group around me had a spirited discussion about the greatest crimes of the Bush administration and the most urgent policy matters for the Obama administration to address. Many of them were not overjoyed with some of Obama’s picks for key roles, and were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for only a short period of time – again, these were not blind followers by any means. We even talked about what to do when Bush came on stage; a few wanted to stay quiet, but the vast majority were in favor of booing. People cheered and hugged when both Biden and Obama were sworn in, and everyone listened intently to Obama’s address. It was a powerful few hours, seriously reflecting on the political future of our country with millions of engaged people standing with you. In the end, there was a great sense of satisfaction in the crowd, not so much because Obama was in power, but more because we made connections to so many new people, and we felt all of us would play a role in shaping the direction America took under the Obama administration.

Later that night, at the Inaugural Peace Ball, Amy Goodman made the same point resoundingly clear. Even though many of us disagreed with some of Obama’s choices and decisions thus far, there was actually potential for a progressive agenda. She noted that Obama frequently stated that the public would have to do its part and force him to do the right thing, echoing Lyndon Johnson’s words to Martin Luther King, Jr. Barack Obama might play a centrist on TV, but it seems unlikely that he has actually internalized those norms and shifted from the openly progressive views he held until he began positioning himself for his presidential run. Unlike most politicians who talk about the other side of the tracks while having no idea what marginalized people’s lives are like, Obama actually came from, and worked to improve, those communities. He spoke out against US militarism when it was dangerous to do so. He was serious about alleviating poverty, providing affordable and quality health care to millions of uninsured, limiting the impact of lobbyists in Washington, and restoring the rule of law to the land. He may have shifted his public stance on these and other issues, but that may have been a response to the structural constraints of being a Washington politician. With widespread public pressure, something he seems better positioned to generate than any other US President, Goodman suggested that Obama might be able to transcend the restrictions of the Beltway and actually make the right calls from the Oval Office.

This is why the movement behind Obama is so crucial, and why inauguration week was such an inspiring moment. Washington is a town of extreme entrenchment. Ideological politicians, powerful lobby groups, and corporations make the status-quo a very difficult thing to overcome. Without major public pressure, it is hard to imagine President Obama being able to make many of the changes his masses of supporters want to see him enact. This was something many of us were wary of, the Obama supporters who mainly voted against Bush instead of for Obama, and those who aren’t critically engaged on issues and are unwilling to push the new President – the Obamamaniacs, if you will. If these camps comprised a large share of the population voting for Obama, we would probably be in trouble.

Admittedly, its just one sample, albeit a large one, and there certainly were people who I met who fell into either of these categories, but I would not categorize the vast majority of people who I crossed paths with during inauguration week in either of these camps. The diverse masses with whom I huddled in the freezing cold, waited in lines with, cheered with, danced with, and became friends with were well-versed on complicated political issues. And these weren’t all policy analysts, researchers, or other “intellectual” types. There was the middle-aged construction worker from Alabama who spoke to me in detail about why Obama needed to end the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan immediately. There was the high school junior from Delaware who wanted to see President Obama push greater accountability in the TARP rescue plan. In fact, every person I met had at least one issue in mind that they thought Obama needed to change his policies on. This held true across race, class, gender, and geography – in fact, the Midwesterners and Southerners I met may have been more adamant about these issues than us northeasterners!

This was the most remarkable and hopeful part of those few days. The populace was not a flock of sheep in any way whatsoever. This meant a lot to me in particular, considering the fact that I had several near-altercations with people immediately after 9/11 over their complete ignorance about the impact of US foreign policy on the Arab and Muslim world, and their militarism and xenophobia. I couldn’t help but smile every time a stranger launched into a diatribe about some issue of importance to them. The norms of political engagement in America seemed to have changed dramatically – and not a minute too soon! Seeing this firsthand will be one of the most inspiring moments in my consciousness. I was not in the presence of millions of people. I was in the presence of a movement that was ready, willing, and able to push President Obama to do the right thing.

And make no mistake about it, President Obama is going to need this movement to be strong, to give him hell, and to make him pursue his campaign promises. He is no progressive superhero. While he has made some commendable moves in his first few weeks, he has also pursued some questionable policies. He launched a unilateral air strike in Pakistan [1], a move that was greeted with anger by the weak Pakistani government, and a strategy that may cause more harm than good.[2] The movement has work to do to push Obama towards a less-militaristic policy towards this increasingly important state, as the military option threatens to create major fissures in Pakistan. Obama has also remained relatively silent on the carnage in Gaza, continuing his policy of appeasing the Israeli-Right, something he started during his presidential campaign. Majorities in both Israel and Palestine, along with most people throughout the globe, support a 2-state solution, and the movement will need to pressure President Obama towards taking an even-handed approach to the conflict, something the US has not done for a long time. In perhaps an early indication that he might indeed opt for this kind of approach, he appointed George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy, as opposed to the usual suspects among Democratic Middle Eastern “experts”, none of whom are thought of as even-handed in any way.

There are also concerns that the President is trying to compromise too much with Republicans to pass the stimulus package, an issue considering the fact that their policies helped lead us into this economic mess we have right now.[3] There is rising alarm that the package that will eventually come out may sacrifice actual economic stimulus for bipartisanship.[4] This will be a crucial test for Obama’s leadership, illustrating whether he will side with the compromise, or push for the bigger stimulus package, something the movement behind him and top economists are calling for. In addition to pressuring the President, the Obama movement could also push Democrats and Republicans in Congress to abandon failed policies and opt for the most effective stimulus package, one with more spending and less tax cuts than the version circulating now that is causing panic. On the other hand, Obama does seem to be more in-line with the movement on this issue, evidenced by his strong comments the past few days about the need to avoid failed policies in order to gain Republican support. This is a positive sign.

Millions gathered and spontaneously formed communities on tiny segments of the National Mall, highly informed, passionate, and energized communities determined to see actual change and not just rhetoric. These communities, encompassing over 2 million Americans who gathered in the bitter cold to be part of the inauguration a few weeks ago, represent a movement that offers us greater hope than any president. On top of that, President Obama himself has offered us glimpses of passionate, fiery, progressive ideas in years past. At heart, he is probably still one of us. I remember being inspired by his strong words against the Iraq War in 2003, and do not believe the man in the Oval Office today is a fundamentally different person. His administration is also less ideological than the departed Bush administration, meaning that effective pressure from the populace could actually lead to policy changes.

This movement arose in response to war, militarism, widening gaps between the haves and have-nots, racism (Katrina, anyone?), and a lawless government. Given his own background, Obama was able to effortlessly tap into it. This explains the never-ending crowd that congregated on the National Mall. Obama’s success is due more to the people who latched onto him than it is to the President himself. The movement around him was the reason he pulled off an upset in Iowa last year. It toppled the mighty Clinton political machine and carried him to a huge win against McCain. Its members trekked to DC from all over the country, waited in long lines, braved freezing temperatures, walked for hours, and functioned on minimal sleep. This mass of people embraced those around them as their own family. They came with joy, with passion, with hope, and most importantly, with knowledge and determination. This was no ordinary group of people. This was a community, a movement the likes of which I’ve never seen. Any successes America achieves over the next four years will be due to their efforts. There will undoubtedly be trouble ahead, but they are ready to do their part and create pressure to force their leader to do the right thing. It is indeed a time to celebrate, because there is real potential for change in Washington. Using public pressure to make that change a reality will be the way to celebrate. That was the ultimate message I took from the movement during inauguration week, and it was enough to make a hardened cynic like myself smile the entire time they were around.

1. “Deadly missiles strike Pakistan.” BBC World News, January 23, 2009. Available online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7847423.stm.
2. Ahmad J, Pervez F. “The US War on Pakistan.” Left Turn Magazine, December 16, 2008. Available online: http://www.leftturn.org/?q=node/1272.
3. David Sirota and Thomas Frank on Bill Moyers’ Journal, January 23, 2009. Available online: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/01232009/watch.html
4. Nichols J. “More Bipartisanship, Less Stimulus.” The Nation, February 7, 2009. Available online: http://www.thenation.com/blogs/thebeat/406028?rel=hp_picks.

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