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Engage, Don't Demonize: Dealing with Obama
Barack Obama’s short stint in the presidency has had its highs and lows for the progressive community. However, instead of considering him an enemy, the progressive community should take a smarter attitude and commend him when he deserves it, and engage with him when he succumbs to political expediency, writes Akhila Raman.
(Above): U.S. President Barack Obama has been particularly successful in continuing to retain a high degree of public confidence as he wrestles with economic and political challenges the U.S. has not seen since the time of President Franklin Roosevelt.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character . . . I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up . . . live out the true meaning of its creed:” We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’” — Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech, Aug. 28, 1963.
Only 45 years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the rousing speech “I have a dream,” Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother who used food stamps at times to feed her family, has become the first black president of the United States of America, beating all odds. While he has been vilified and subjected to a barrage of criticism and ridicule from both ends of the political spectrum, he has been supported and praised overwhelmingly by African Americans who mobilized by the tens of millions to vote for him, and who feel immensely proud of the first black family in the “White” House.
How do we reconcile such violently opposing reactions? Can we judge him by his record so far, as opposed to judging him by sound bites?
During his presidential campaign, Obama used carefully scripted sound bites such as “I am not a Muslim” (Don’t worry), “I will bomb Al-Qaeda in Pakistan” (I am a strong leader), “Israel’s security is sacrosanct” (I feel Israel in my kishka) which infuriated progressive liberals around the world who denounced him as a “vacuous” hope and change peddler and a “corporate candidate.” Similarly Obama’s lines “I will raise the payroll taxes and capital gains taxes on the wealthy making above 250,000 dollars a year” infuriated those on the right who have denounced his as a “socialist.” FOOTNOTE 1
In the six weeks following his inauguration, similar sounding lines from Obama and his delayed remarks on Gaza and continuing policy on Afghanistan and North West Pakistan have drawn sharp criticism from the left. Meanwhile most African Americans, right from ordinary women like Henrietta Hughes and Harlem children to renowned scholars like John Hope Franklin, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and poet Maya Angelou rejoiced in his victory and consider him one of their own though he has no slave ancestry.
Can we step back and examine Obama’s record so far from a neutral perspective, rather than through a rigid ideological prism?
Is he a man of action or hope and change peddler?
In the first six weeks following his inauguration Jan. 20, President Obama has signed a number of important bills so far and outlined some clear foreign policy options.
In domestic police, he has made some significant decisions.
Gender fairness. The first legislation he signed into law was Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act which will help workers and other victims of past pay discrimination.
Children’s health insurance. He signed into law expansion of children’s health insurance — SCHIP, which will provide health insurance for 4 million additional children.
Stimulus bill. Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill signed Feb. 17 contains progressive social investments creating/saving 2-3 million jobs. (foodstamps, medicaid, welfare, housing and unemployment: $208 billion; education: $91 billion; infrastructure: $81 billion; energy including renewable energy: $50 billion)
Closing Guantanamo. He has signed orders for the closure of Guantanamo and secret CIA prisons around the world and banned waterboarding. (It may take a year to fully close Guantanamo and figure out what to do with the several hundred inmates but at least it ensures there will be no new victims.)
Environment. The Obama administration has withdrawn oil and natural gas leases on 130,000 acres of public land in Utah Red Rock Wilderness area, granted in haste during the last weeks of Bush administration, indicating that it intends to restore the right balance between development of resources and protection of environment. He has also reversed a ban on federal funds for stem cell research which could possibly cure some devastating diseases.
Budget. Obama’s proposed budget for 2010 allocates more than half the budget for social security, medicare, medicaid, housing, education, health and human services. It proposes to create a $634 billion health care reserve fund over 10 years towards down payment for healthcare reform. It also proposes reversing tax cuts for the wealthy, raising capital gains tax on those making over $250,000; it increases corporate taxes with an overall tax increase of $600 billion over 10 years for the wealthy and corporations.
The Republicans are expected to fight him tooth and nail on this budget with a possible Senate filibuster, but Obama can hardly be denounced as a “corporate candidate” any more, nor can his “hope” and “change” message be denounced as “vacuous,” given his stimulus bill and proposed budget.
In foreign policy, Obama has also made some clear choices.
Iraq troop withdrawal. On Feb. 27, Obama outlined his plans for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, in keeping with his campaign pledge for “responsible phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq.” A minimum of 90,000 troops out of current 140,000 troops will be withdrawn with end of combat mission by August 2010 and he remains committed to removing all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government. FOOTNOTE 2
Many anti-war activists would like faster total withdrawal of troops. Anti-war journalist Nir Rosen’s revealing on-the-ground report from Iraq FOOTNOTE 3 makes it quite clear that sectarian tension between Shias and Sunnis remains just under the surface and is very real. Former Sunni resistance is today’s Sahwa working with the U.S. troops. Working on a regional pact with Iran and other neighbours will be crucial for Iraq’s long-term stability. Obama is clearly aware of this. “We need to be as careful to get out as we were careless to get in,” he has said.
The Middle East. Obama’s Al-Arabiya interview shortly after his inauguration was conciliatory towards the Muslim world. Especially noteworthy were his remarks such as “I have Muslim relatives” and reiteration of willingness to talk to Iran (which Iranian President Ahmedinejad has responded to warmly.) and also subtle admission of “mistakes” in the past. ( “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect...”)
Unfortunately, there has been little change in the foreign policy of Obama administration towards Afghanistan and North-West Pakistan with continued drone attacks which kill many innocent civilians. None of his positive actions outlined in the previous section are any comfort for the Afghan and Pakistani civilians who bear the brunt of these attacks. The defense budget remains bloated and Obama has ordered 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. But there are indications of possible policy changes in future.
Afghanistan. In his Feb. 17 interview to CBC, Obama admitted the failure of U.S. military policy in Afghanistan and mentioned the need for a “comprehensive strategy using diplomacy and development to counter the growing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.” He has ordered a policy review towards achieving this.
The Middle East. Obama’s initial silence on Israel’s recent brutal assault on Gaza was disturbing. Israel appears to have decided on a strategic unilateral ceasefire just before Obama’s inauguration, presumably not to get in his bad books, following Obama’s delayed remarks of his “concern for Palestinian civilian casualty.”
Which could mean at the very minimum, during Obama’s term(s), Israel may not risk another blatant carnage on the scale of the Gaza war and 2006 Lebanon war, for which it had unconditional backing from the Bush administration.
Notwithstanding his pre-election capitulation in front of American Israeli Political Action Committee, Obama has recently made veiled remarks that “a future without hope for the Palestinians” is unacceptable (along with obligatory reaffirmation of commitment to Israel’s security). He has appointed George Mitchell as the envoy for the Middle East, who has successful negotiating experience in the Northern Ireland peace process. The U.S. has also recently donated $900 million to the Palestinian Authority for Gaza reconstruction.
Walk the Walk
It is clear that Obama’s record has been mixed. There has been intense criticism over his speech in front of AIPAC in June 2008. Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian American professor at Columbia University, who knew Obama well, has described Obama’s support for Israel as a “requirement to win a national election in the U.S.” and does not begrudge his friend for being out of touch and remains hopeful that Obama will do better towards Palestinians.
Clearly Obama is prepared to “Walk the walk and talk the talk,” as he himself described as what is required to run for the U.S. presidency. He appears to have formulated cleverly crafted stump speech lines which will appeal to the masses and has stayed away from controversial stances. All this can be justified if he manages to effect policies which help people at the margins of society, which he certainly tried to do with his stimulus bill, which will help millions of workers and people at the margins.
Not all his cabinet choices are corporate ideologues, and his main economic advisor Lawrence Summers himself has evolved FOOTNOTE 4 from being a deregulation enthusiast towards being pro-regulation of the financial sector and writes now even in favour of greater income equality, higher taxes for the rich and lower taxes for the poor and is one of the main driving forces in Obama’s stimulus bill and proposed budget. Besides, Obama’s cabinet has diversity with many women and minorities.
Engaging v Demonizing
People on the left who are disenchanted with Obama have two options: Hold a very rigid ideological standard, view everything that Obama says or does through an ideological prism and continue to lambaste the latest president in Washington on perceived moral deficiency. Perhaps a smarter wat is to choose to give him credit where it is due — such as progressive measures outlined in the previous section — and engage him on grounds of mutual respect with progressive issues of interest to them where he is lagging behind.
Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot of Center for Economic Policy Research have chosen the latter approach and have consistently written articles with helpful and constructive criticism . And the Obama administration has taken care to invite them recently to a White House fiscal summit, as they have invited other progressive groups such as the anti-war Moveon.org and Planned Parenthood recently who choose to engage with the Obama administration based on mutual respect.
It may be worthwhile remembering the words of Hugo Chavez while judging Obama:
“ I believe it’s better to die in battle, rather than hold aloft a very revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing . . . Try and make your revolution, go into combat, advance a little, even if it’s only a millimetre, in the right direction, instead of dreaming about utopias. “ Hugo Chavez said in an interview with Tariq Ali in 2004.
Full Text of the article with detailed references can be found in: http://home.comcast.net/~raman_akhila/articles/obama_siliconeer.htm
1. In the Obama tax plan, here’s what’s proposed.
Capital Gains: Families with incomes below $250,000 will continue to pay the capital gains rates that they pay today. For those in the top two income tax brackets – likewise adjusted to affect only families over $250,000 – Obama will create a new top capital gains rate of 20 percent. Obama’s 20 percent rate is equal is the lowest rate that existed in the 1990s and the rate that President George W. Bush proposed in 2001. It is almost a third lower than the rate that President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1986.
Average Tax Rates Below the 1990s: Overall, the top 1 percent of households – people with an average income of $1.6 million per year – would see their average federal income and payroll tax rate increase from 21 percent today to 24 percent, less than the 25 percent these households would have paid under the tax laws of the late 1990s.
2.”By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end...And under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 . . .” Obama speech on Feb. 27.
3. Nir Rosen, “Myth of The Surge,” Rolling Stone, March 6, 2008 .
4. “Pendulum swings towards regulation:” Lawrence Summers in Financial Times, Oct. 26, 2008.
Akhila Raman is a peace activist and researcher of political and social issues.
She lives in California.