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Shifting Landscapes: Obama & The Movement

Max Uhlenbeck
Date Published: 
December 01, 2008

Though many on the left put forth an analysis that appreciated the importance of defeating McCain and the Republican party, few of us were prepared for the raw emotion that surfaced in the wake of Barack Obama's victory on November 4th. Cities across the US celebrated spontaneously in the streets and it seemed like the whole world celebrated with them.

People's feelings of joy can be attributed to a wide range of reasons, but a few of them seem primary; the end of eight years of Bush/Cheney and a rejection of its continuation through the McCain/Palin ticket, a real sense of pride (symbolic or not) in electing a Black president for the first time, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of political agency as many of them had played some role in the massive grassroots campaign to get out (and protect) the vote. Detroit based civil rights veteran of 93 years, Grace Lee Boggs, summed up the feelings of progressives and activists across the country, many of them skeptical of Obama, following his election:

" support for Obama was never based on his policies or promises which, with few exceptions, are not that different from those of other Democrats. From the outset my eyes were on the people at his rallies, especially the youth who, inspired by his persona and his eloquence, shed the fears instilled by the Nixons, Reagans and Bushes since the 60s and, imbued with a new hope, began organizing on his behalf. For me, not just Obama's victory but that transformation of "we the people" from Fear to Hope, from passivity to activity, from looking on as spectators to participating as citizens was what was so historic about this period."


The coalition

Following the narrow victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, Obama soundly defeated McCain in both the popular and Electoral College vote. Obama gained the most votes in US history with over 66 million-50% more than the 44 million that voted for Reagan in his 1980 "landslide"-and won with the third highest percentage of victory in the history of the Democratic Party at 53%. He was able to accomplish this feat by building a coalition ranging from the far left to the center-right, and by utilizing a variety of new technologies (blogs, YouTube videos, social networking sites) to raise a record three quarters of a billion dollars, much of which was re-invested in staff and organizing infrastructure.

Carl Davidson, a Chicago based activist with the "Progressives for Obama" network, which represented a small but visible left pole of the Obama campaign, describes five key sectors that came together to form the Obama alliance:

  • First there was the antiwar youth, which played a critical role in his initial boost, leading to a then unexpected victory in Iowa, one of the ‘whitest states' in the country.
  • There was the African-American community, which represented 13% of the electorate and voted 19-1 in favor of Obama, quickly uniting around him in full force after he was seen as a viable candidate following the Iowa primary.
  • Organized labor played a major role, knocking on tens of thousands of doors, and convincing large sections of the white working class that it was in their interests to vote for a Black candidate.
  • Women, especially those concerned with issues of reproductive rights and healthcare.
  • Finally the Latino vote, representing 9% of the electorate, essentially put Obama over the top, voting 2-1 for him and helping to flip three Southwestern states blue-New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado as well as playing a major role in winning the state of Florida.

Steve Cobble, co-founder of Progressive Democrats for America, points out that:

"The combination of 2-to-1 margins among both young voters and Latino voters is an extremely positive sign for a center-left realignment. These are the building blocks of any future Democratic coalition, especially in combination with the winning rainbow coalition of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Jewish & Arab voters, secular voters, union members, gays & lesbians, and single women.... By 2050, it is projected that the Black/Brown piece of the voting electorate will be twice [it's current size], in the neighborhood of 45%. The demography of the future should be a source of great worry to the GOP."

From an anti-racist point of few, these shifts are also good news. As founding editor of ColorLines magazine Bob Wing pointed out back in 2004, the Republican victory turned almost exclusively on increasing its share of the white vote. In 2000 Bush won the white vote by 12 points, 54-42; in 2004 he increased this to a 17-point margin, 58-41. That increase translated into nearly a four million vote gain for Bush on his way to a close re-election campaign. Obama's election as the countries first black president has already produced a groundswell of white-supremacist activity including several threats on his life, as well as increases in incidents of racist attacks and islamophobic and anti-semetic graffiti. Standing in strong opposition to these trends, independent of how we may view Obama politically, will be of utmost importance.


Real change?

Barack Obama did not get elected on a left platform. He has not promised to fundamentally reform either domestic or US foreign policy and a quick look at either his voting record or his recent cabinet appointments should paint a very clear picture for all of us. Still, Obama takes the helm at a particularly precarious time in history, both for the US ruling class and the people who have endured its policies. US economic hegemony, the centerpiece of international politics since the end of World War II, is in a sudden free fall, following a slow but steady decline since the 1970s. This shift in power relations will seriously limit the Obama administration's ability to act on the global stage in the way that the US has grown accustomed to. World systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein recently noted:

"two major centers of power issued statements on the geopolitical scene that were quite forthright. Both the European Union in a unanimous statement and President Lula of Brazil said they looked forward to renewing collaboration with the United States, but this time as equals, not as junior partners."

One of the main questions will be whether an Obama administration will recognize the fact that other parts of the world will no longer be "junior partners" and accept this new multipolar reality. The recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai are disturbing, not only for the extreme human toll that they took, but also because they could well provide the pretext for a new front on the so called ‘war on terror'. Regionally the Indian government has been framing the terrorist attacks as "our 9/11," a tactic aimed at preparing neighboring countries for possible military combat with Pakistan. The Obama administration has also made several disturbing rhetorical gestures towards Pakistan, suggesting a continuation or even expansion of the recent illegal attacks inside Pakistan under the Bush administration.

Still, events are very fluid. During his nearly two-year campaign, Obama has challenged the "either your with us your against us" dichotomy that so marked the post September 11th climate. In stark contrast to Bush, who, following the February 15th, 2003 global protests against the war in which over ten million people in every single major city in the world took place, famously said that ‘he doesn't base his policy decisions on focus groups,' Obama gained much of his early popular support by engaging the protest movement, occasionally even speaking at local antiwar rallies. Recently he has pledged to close Guantanomo Bay, a key issue for many antiwar activists. Antiwar coalitions might take advantage of the moment to push forward their continued demands for a withdrawal from Iraq and no new incursions into other parts of Asia in this more favorable political climate. These demands will have to be tied into a broader framework including the economic crisis, universal healthcare and green jobs, as it has become harder to mobilize strictly on a "troops out now" platform.


Rules of engagement

Large parts of the organized left decided to either not engage the "Obama moment," or critique his centrist platform pointing out (correctly) that there often seemed little substance behind his rhetoric of "change" and "hope." While it was important to remain vigilant, specifically as Obama shifted to the right as the elections drew near, the left had no viable alternative framework to push forward. All of the groupings that the left looks to for support, and in fact often builds informal or formal coalitions with on the local level, were immersed in the Obama campaign. Some, observing the political momentum building throughout the country in the months leading up to the election, chose not to throw themselves into the Obama campaign and instead prioritized critical local work they were already involved in, while doing their best to track the momentum building behind Obama. Other sectors of the left however seemed painfully out of touch with the political reality as they sought to shout down Obama supporters or pretend as if something historic was not happening all around them.

The question of how to build independent movements, spanning multiple issues and networked on the national level, either in relation to, or outside of the electoral arena, will take on added significance as we move forward in the Obama era. We clearly see a mass base of support for core left issues like universal healthcare, the right to unionize, a progressive tax system and an end to the war. Those of us who are committed to left organization will have to keep challenging ourselves on these questions, and in doing so, will hopefully break out of much of the self-imposed marginalization that passes for radical chiq.


Moving forward

It was important for the coalition that brought Obama to power to feel the strength of political victory, especially for the thousands of young people who worked on the campaign and learned valuable organizing experience. The decentralized nature of Obama's campaign was run in a way that at all times there were at least two campaigns going on; the official one run by the Democratic Party, and then the much more autonomous campaign being run by sectors of the grassroots which combined get out the vote strategies with progressive issue based organizing.

No matter how disappointing Obama will end up being-and he will disappoint-the triumph of hope over fear and despair is a victory for everyone, including the left, which has always projected freedom dreams of wild possibility. As the graffiti scrawled on the walls in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina reminded us however, "hope is not a plan." How much those of us that believe in deeper structural, even revolutionary changes, can tap into the imagination of the millions of people who threw themselves in the Obama campaign, will depend on the kinds of politics that we develop and the kinds of organizations that we build. We have to remember that real change is a slow and complicated process, and that no one has all of the answers, not Obama, and certainly not the Democratic Party. The poet June Jordan might have said it best when on November 3, 1992, the evening of Bill Clinton's victory over Bush senior-another time of great hope and optimism coming off of twelve years of Reagan and Bush-she wrote:

"And because revolution always takes place on the basis of great hope and rising expectations, I am not too worried about the future. One way or another, a whole lotta change is gonna come. Through happiness realized or through and beyond the pain of betrayal... let our elected leadership beware the awesome possible wrath of a might, multifoliate, and faithful people whose deepest hopes have been rekindled and whose needs have not been met."

-Max Uhlenbeck is on the editorial collective of Left Turn (, he works and lives in New York City as the development coordinator for the Brecht Forum and sits on the board of the North American Congress on Latin America