Watching the growth of Occupy Wall Street solidarity protests around the country, it’s hard not to be reminded of the lost opportunity to mobilize a left-wing popular movement back in the winter of 2008-2009 and the spring of 2009. That was a time when Congress was psychologically prepared to address the issues of joblessness, the availability of health care and education, and the ecological sustainability of the global economy. But instead of hearing from a popular protest movement driving at roughly those things, the powers that be were faced instead with a mania for austerity and deregulation driven by racial resentment.
The problem at that point was the fundamentally paradoxical attitude of the Democratic Party leadership. On the one hand, they want to be in the center of American politics. On the other hand, they’re viciously opposed to the emergence of any kind of mass movement to the left of the Democratic Party leadership. This combination of preferences is simply not viable. I’m not saying it would have been smart for Barack Obama and Harry Reid to lead radical protest marches, but it would have been smart of them to see it as beneficial if someone was doing so. The dynamic in the House GOP where the Tea Party caucus sometimes annoys John Boehner but also repositions him as a moderate and reasonable guy and gives him leverage in the process. The giant puppet people protests against “globalization” in the late-1990s were, I think, always helpful to Bill Clinton.* They gave him the positioning he wanted — as a center-left mildly progressive neoliberal technocrat trying to take practical steps toward prosperity. People in the streets chanting about “corporate greed” is a useful reality check to the c-suites that could have helped restrain their fantasies about Kenyan anti-colonialist sharia socialism.
But Team Obama didn’t want progressive groups to put people in the streets back when he was powerful and prestigious enough that such protests could have given him a commanding position in the center of American politics. Instead the mass movement has arisen at a time when the president looks weak, mildly unpopular, etc. That’s no coincidence. But the same process that’s taken the shine off Obama has hurt progressive issues across the board and will make it much harder to make tangible progress on anything.
Remember back in 2008 when one of the selling points about Obama was his mad organizational skills? Supposedly he would mobilize “Obama for America” (now “Organizing for America”) to flood congressional phone lines and mail rooms to push his agenda the same way they flooded the intertoobz with lies and smears about Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.
So what happened?
What happened to Barack Obama’s once vaunted political machine? The outfit that put upwards of 8 million volunteers on the street in 2008 — known as Organizing for America — is a ghost of its former self. Its staff has shrunk from 6,000 to 300, and its donors are depressed: receipts are a fraction of what they were in 2008. Virtually no one in politics believes it will turn many contests this fall. “There’s no chance that OFA is going to have the slightest impact on the midterms,” says Charlie Cook, who tracks congressional races.
Neglect is to blame. After Obama was elected, his political aides ignored the army he had created until it eventually disappeared. No one was in charge; decisions were often deferred but rarely made. By the time they realized they needed more troops, says longtime consultant Joe Trippi, “their supporters had taken a vacation from politics.”
New York Times on 1/26/2009:
Mr. Plouffe said the group had not settled on a budget or begun serious fund-raising. The goal is to have a relatively small staff, with representatives in most, if not every, state, and to make up any shortfall in personnel with the use of technology.
There is a clear interest in keeping the Internet-based political machinery that made Mr. Obama’s brand so iconic and that helped him raise record amounts. The new group’s initials, O.F.A., conveniently also apply to his Obama for America campaign. And the desire for the Obama organization to live on was voiced in a meeting of organizers in Chicago after Election Day, and echoed at 4,800 house meetings in December and in a survey completed by 500,000 Obama supporters.
Still, sensitive to ruffling feathers even among fellow Democrats wary of Mr. Obama’s huge political support, Mr. Obama’s aides emphasized that the effort was not created to lobby directly or pressure members of Congress to support Mr. Obama’s programs.
“This is not a political campaign,” Mr. Plouffe said. “This is not a ‘call or e-mail your member of Congress’ organization.”
Let’s go back to what Matt said:
But Team Obama didn’t want progressive groups to put people in the streets back when he was powerful and prestigious enough that such protests could have given him a commanding position in the center of American politics.
Team Obama didn’t want progressive groups to put people in the streets
Now why would they not want that if they intended to pursue a progressive agenda? The question almost answers itself.
They didn’t intend to pursue a progressive agenda.
Quod erat demonstrandum.