Barack Obama Offers Hope for America’s Progressive Future

by Randy Shaw on February 13, 2007

I wrote last November that 2008 was Barack Obama’s historical moment to seek the presidency. Obama announced his candidacy last Saturday, immediately joining Hillary Clinton and John Edwards as the leading contenders for the nomination. While many are unhappy over the early start to the 2008 presidential race, and believe it unfair for three candidates to already be anointed “frontrunners,” political reality says that one of these three will almost certainly become the Democratic Party nominee and go on to win the presidency. Progressives are understandably torn between Edwards and Obama. To my mind, Obama has a much better chance of defeating Clinton, and of going on to become America’s first progressive president since Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945.

Although history is rife with examples of Democratic presidential candidates unexpectedly sweeping primaries and winning the nomination—such as Carter, Dukakis, and Kerry—2008 is different. The top-tier of the field is much stronger, better financed, and more representative than in previous campaigns, leaving little room for the success of unlikely candidacies.

Progressives have an obvious goal: nominate a Democrat who will reach the White House desiring to be a vehicle for progressive constituencies. Edwards absolutely meets this test. Clinton absolutely fails it. I am confident that Obama also satisfies this threshold requirement, fully understanding that others may seek more evidence before reaching this conclusion.

Here’s the potential problem: backers of the two progressive candidates could split their votes to the benefit of Clinton. We do not have ranked choice voting in presidential primaries, so the pro-war Clinton will benefit by not sharing her potential vote with others (unless “Joementum” Lieberman can be convinced to enter the race).

Clinton’s performance in New Hampshire this past weekend eliminated any doubts that she would be a disaster as President. She refuses to acknowledge her support of the Iraq war was a mistake, and attacks Bush not for the decision to invade, but for his lack of competence in carrying out the invasion and occupation.

In other words, Clinton holds many of the same foreign policy assumptions as Bush, but will pursue America’s interests abroad more “competently.”

I think most Democrats want America to move in a new and different direction.

Democrats support Clinton because a) they believe the election of the first woman president is the highest priority or b) they have forgotten how far to the right President Bill Clinton moved after taking office in 1993.

Bill Clinton’s hostility to progressive constituencies during his first term so demoralized the Party’s grassroots base that many did not vote in the 1994 elections. This paved the way for the Gingrich “revolution” and Republican takeover of Congress, which Clinton then used to “triangulate” between Democrats and right-wing Republicans in 1995 and 1996. Nearly all of Clinton’s progressive achievements were limited to his last three years in office—-which is why there was such disaffection among the left toward the Gore-Lieberman ticket in 2000.

I refuse to believe that Democrats view the Clinton years are as good as it gets.

The Edwards-Obama contest harkens back to the 1976 primaries, when Jimmy Carter battled Arizona Congress member Morris “Mo” Udall. Udall had all the best policy papers and action plans, but Carter’s more spiritual and non-wonkish message prevailed.

I never liked Carter’s “I will never lie to you” post-Watergate shtick, but America ate it up. Obama also offers a broader thematic appeal, but unlike Carter, combines it with progressive politics.

In 2004, the non-charismatic, boring and wonkish John Kerry blew John Edwards away in the Democratic primaries. Edwards’ “Two Americas” vision did not excite voters enough for him to come close to wresting the nomination from Kerry in 2004, and it is not clear what has changed to galvanize voters on his behalf for 2008.

I don’t see Edwards beating Hillary Clinton in a one-to-one primary in California, Florida, Ohio or New York. But Obama would beat her in the first three states, and possibly even in her home state of New York.

Unlike many progressive activists, Americans do not choose their Presidents based on policy papers, or even agreement on a laundry list of issues. Many vote based on a feeling about the candidate, and there is an excitement around Obama that has not been seen in a Democratic primary season since George McGovern’s 1972 campaign.

Obama joined Howard Dean in strongly opposing the Iraq War, and recently sponsored a well-conceived measure for ending US involvement. His opposition to the war, and his understanding of why it was poorly conceived and not simply poorly executed, stands in sharp contrast to both Clinton and Edwards.

While Edwards admits his support for the war was wrong, and now urges a troop withdrawal, keep in mind a simple fact: when progressives took to the streets to oppose the war in 2003, Obama stood with us. Edwards voted against us.

In fact, Obama spoke at a large anti-war rally in Chicago’s Federal Plaza in October 2002. This was when he gave his famous speech saying he was not against all wars, only “dumb” wars like Iraq.

Edwards is phenomenal on labor issues, but after seeing progressives take to the streets, he nevertheless voted for the “dumb,” immoral, and murderous war.

As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert pointed out in his February 12 column, the issue of Iraq overwhelms all others. If Edwards were the Democrats 2008 candidate, he would have the same problem Kerry had in 2004 in trying to use the war against Republicans. In other words, he voted for it before he was against it.

Iraq spending continues to drain funding for human needs, and undermines America’s moral authority and credibility. We cannot move forward on health care or other critical domestic needs while billions are spent pursuing failure in Iraq.

I did not have the political consciousness at the time to appreciate McGovern’s campaign, and was born well after FDR. Progressives have waited far too long for a Democratic presidential nominee they could be proud of, and even call one of their own.

So while the first primary remains nearly a year away, the sooner Obama breaks from the pack, the better.

Consider this fact when assessing how you choose to spend your political volunteer time in the months ahead.

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