Progressive Critics Help Obama and Democrats

by Randy Shaw on June 22, 2010

President Obama’s supporters are divided over challenging his policies. In 2009, activists pretty much gave Obama a pass, feeling criticism was premature and that Democratic Party unity was needed to combat Republican obstructionism. Some still argue that progressive critics weaken Democrats and embolden the right wing. But holding self-identified “progressive” politicians like Barack Obama accountable for fulfilling campaign commitments actually improves the chances for progressive election victories, as it pressures Democrats to satisfy their base. And as the critical midterm elections approach, ensuring this grassroots base is motivated and mobilizable by holding Obama and Congressional Democrats accountable is even more imperative.

In recent weeks, progressive criticism of President Obama over the BP oil spill, immigration reform, Afghanistan, his focus on deficit reduction and other issues has increased. In response, many argue that Obama’s critics on the left are weakening a President already under siege from Republicans, thereby increasing chances for conservative victories in November.

But recent history says otherwise

Progressives Pay Price for Silence

Let’s quickly look at the previous two Democratic Presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. In both cases, progressive silence in the face of their betrayals weakened the left and boosted Republicans.

Although neither Carter nor Clinton identified as a “progressive,” both actively sought support from progressive constituencies like environmentalists, labor, women, and African-Americans (Latinos were not yet a major progressive political force).

After Carter moved right following the 1978 elections (if not earlier), he so alienated progressive supporters that they backed Ted Kennedy in the 1980 Democratic presidential primaries. Carter’s rightward move also failed to enable him to maintain his conservative southern democratic base, paving the way for the Reagan Revolution in 1980.

After winning the 1992 election, Bill Clinton decided to move to the right and abandon his “Putting People First” campaign agenda. As I describe in The Activist’s Handbook, environmentalists and other progressives failed to hold Clinton accountable for his broken promises, fearing that it would cost them “access” with the first Democratic Administration in over a decade.

The result? Republicans won control of the House in the 1994 elections, and from that point on Clinton governed as a “triangulator” rather than a Democratic seeking to respond to his party’s base.

Onetime Clinton backers stayed away from the polls in droves in 1994, undermining the hopes of Washington DC-based progressives who thought avoiding public criticism of Clinton would help keep his political base intact. Instead, Clinton interpreted progressive silence as reason to ignore the grassroots, creating the political dynamic that led to the Gingrich Revolution of 1995.

Failing to hold politicians accountable is a failed strategy. It did not work under Clinton, and it clearly will not help Obama or the Democratic Party to get their 2008 backers to vote for Democrats in November.

Obama Responds to Progressive Criticism

When I wrote last December that activists were giving Obama a free pass, some responded that there was no evidence that the President would be positively impacted by criticism from the left. Those still believing this should consider:

After public complaints from the AFL-CIO, Obama finally filled longstanding vacancies at the NLRB with pro-union recess appointees;

After widespread progressive criticism, Obama renewed pressure for a new jobs bill, and a budget bill designed to aid state and local governments;

Following criticism of the slow pace and moderate backgrounds of his judicial appointments, Obama appointed openly progressive Boalt Law Professor Goodwin Liu to the prestigious Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals;

In response to progressive criticism over his handling of the BP spill, Obama won $20 billion in compensation and renewed pressure to either pass climate change legislation or, if votes not there, to enact as much as possible administratively;

After intense public criticism for not repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Obama – who had done nothing on this issue until activists heightened the pressure – set in motion its repeal in December.

The list could go on and on. And it does not include Obama’s implementation of progressive policies without facing pressure to so act.

Progressive Failures

The flip side of the benefits of progressive criticism is that Obama has avoided “change” on issues where activists have been silent. Three obvious examples:


Our military mission in Afghanistan appears more pointless if not counterproductive with each status report, and it drains funds that could be used to create jobs or bail out suffering states. But key progressive constituencies fighting over budget issues are not publicly pressuring Obama over Afghanistan, so nothing will change.

Immigration Reform

Immigrant rights activists allowed Obama to delay progress through much of 2009, and by the time they publicly criticized his inaction the political climate for comprehensive reform had worsened. Whether activists could have gotten a bill introduced and passed had they demanded action earlier will never be known, but its clear that delaying public criticism of Obama for not moving on an issue where he made unambiguous campaign commitments to Latinos and unions brought no tangible benefits to either constituency.

Public Transit

Cutbacks in public transit are daily news stories across the United States, all while the President and environmental groups argue that the BP spill shows that Americans must be less car-dependent. But how can people not drive cars everywhere if there are no alternatives? Enviros have rightfully praised Obama’s commitment to high- speed rail, but the failure to pressure Obama to ensure that funding cuts at the state and local level does not eviscerate public transit has enabled these devastating cutbacks to (quietly) proceed.

If anyone has examples of Obama moving against progressives in response to their criticisms, send them over. In the meantime, a President and Democratic Congress pressured to satisfy their base increases the prospects for a large voter turnout and progressive victories in November.

Randy Shaw is also the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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