Friday, February 27, 2009

The Need for the American Left to Engage the Obama Presidency in a Mature Manner


The following highly lucid and timely analysis by the widely respected radical African American political theorist and activist Linda Burham is an excellent critique of the crucial need for the American Left to seriously engage the Obama administration and its various public policies and positions in a mature, systematic, and nuanced fashion. Burham emphasizes a critical and proactive approach that clearly establishes and provides ideological and political clarity in a strategic, tactical, and goal oriented sense that openly acknowledges and confronts the complex realities of Obama's ascendancy to the Presidency in a manner that fully accounts for the many 'positive' and 'negative' dimensions of that important ascension and offers both the rationale for measured support and/or solid defense of Obama's agenda as well as unflinching critical opposition when that is required. To say that Burham's critical insight and perspective is valuable and necessary is understating it by half. In my view it is also the most intelligent, honest, useful, and truly mature critique that I have read by any American leftist critic and activist thus far on the extraordinary Obama political phenomenon and what it actually means for us as citizens and the future of genuine mass democracy in the United States.


Notes on an Orientation to the Obama Presidency

By Linda Burnham

The election of Obama, while enthusiastically embraced
by most of the left, has also occasioned some
disorientation and confusion.

Some have become so used to confronting the dismal
electoral choice between the lesser of two evils that
they couldn't figure out how to relate to a political
figure who held out the possibility of substantive
change in a positive direction.

Others are so used to all-out, full-throated opposition
to every administration that they wonder whether and
how to alter their stance.

Still others sat out the election, for a variety of
political and organizational reasons, and were taken by
surprise at how wide and deep ran the current for

Now there's an active conversation on the left about
what can be expected of an Obama administration and
what the orientation of the left should be towards it.
There are two conflicting views on this:

First, that Obama represents a substantial, principally
positive political shift and that, while the left
should criticize and resist policies that pull away
from the interests of working people, its main
orientation should be to actively engage with the
political motion that's underway.

Second, that Obama is, in essence, just another steward
of capitalism, more attractive than most, but not an
agent of fundamental change. He should be regarded with
caution and is bound to disappoint. The basic
orientation is to criticize every move the
administration makes and to remain disengaged from
mainstream politics.

It is possible to grant that Obama is a steward of
capitalism while also maintaining that his election has
opened up the potential for substantive reform in the
interests of working people and that his election to
office is a democratic win worthy of being fiercely

Obama is clear - and we should be too - about what he
was elected to do. The bottom line of his job
description has become increasingly evident as the
economic crisis deepens. Obama's job is to salvage and
stabilize the U.S. capitalist system and to perform
whatever triage is necessary to restore the core
institutions of finance and industry to profitability.

Obama's second bottom line is also clear to him - and
should also be to us: to salvage the reputation of the
U.S. in the world; repair the international ties
shredded by eight years of cowboy unilateralism; and
adjust U.S. positioning on the world stage on the basis
of a rational assessment of the strengths and
weaknesses of the changed and changing centers of
global political, economic and military power - rather
than on the basis of a simple-minded ideological
commitment to unchallenged world dominance.

Obama has been on the job for only a month but has not
wasted a moment in going after his double bottom line
with gusto, panache and high intelligence. In point of
fact, the capitalists of the world - or at least the
U.S. branch - ought to be building altars to the man
and lighting candles. They have chosen an uncommonly
steady hand to pull their sizzling fat from the fire.

For some on the left this is the beginning and the end
of the story. Having established conclusively that
Obama's fundamental task is to govern in the interests
of capital, there's no point in adjusting one's stance,
regardless of how skillful and popular he may be. For
the anti-capitalist left that is grounded in
Trotskyism, anarcho-horizontalism, or various forms of
third-party-as-a-point-of-principleism, the only change
worthy of the name is change that hits directly at the
kneecaps of capitalism and cripples it decisively. All
else is trifling with minor reforms or, even worse,
capitulating to the power elite. From this point of
view the stance towards Obama is self-evident:
criticize relentlessly, disabuse others of their
presidential infatuation, and denounce anything that
remotely smacks of mainstream politics. Though this may
seem an extreme and marginal point of view, it has a
surprising degree of currency in many quarters.

The effective-steward-of-capitalism is only one part of
the Obama story. Obama did what the center would not do
and what a fragmented and debilitated left could not
do. He broke the death grip of the reactionary right by
inspiring and mobilizing millions as agents of change.
If Obama doesn't manage to do even one more progressive
thing over the course of the next four years, he has
already opened up far more promising political terrain.

His campaign:

- Revealed the contours, composition and
potential of a broad democratic coalition,
demographically grounded in the (overlapping)
constituencies of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians,
youth across the racial groups, LGBT voters, unionized
workers, urban professionals, and women of color and
single white women, and in the sectors of organized
labor, peace, civil rights, civil liberties, feminism,
and environmentalism. Obama did not create this broadly
democratic electoral coalition single-handedly or out
of whole cloth, but he did move it from latency to
potency and from dispirited, amorphous and unorganized
to goal oriented, enthusiastic and organized;

- Busted up the Republican's southern strategy,
the foundation of their rule for most of the last forty
years, and the Democrat's ignominious concession to
this legacy of slavery;

- Wrenched the Democratic Party out of the clammy
grip of Clintonian centrism. (Although he himself often
leads from the center, Obama's center is a couple of
notches to the left of the Clinton administration's
triangulation strategies); and

- Rescued political dialogue from its
monopolization by hate-filled, xenophobic, ultra-
nationalistic ideologues.

This is not change of the anti-capitalist variety, but
certainly it is change of major consequence.

If the criterion is that the only change to be
supported is that which strikes a decisive blow at
capital, then the gap between where we are now and the
realignment it would take to strike such a blow is
completely and perpetually unbridgeable.

A better set of criteria, in light of the weakness of
the left and the decades of hyper-conservatism we are
only now exiting, is change that: creates substantially
better conditions for working people; broadens the
scope of democratic rights for sectors of the
population whose rights have been abrogated; limits the
prerogatives of capital; constrains runaway militarism
and perpetual war; takes seriously the prospect of
environmental collapse; and creates better conditions
for struggle. This is the potential for change that
Obama's presidency has generated. This is the
democratic opening. It is potential that will only be
realized and maximized if the left and progressives
step up and stay engaged.

These are also the criteria to keep in mind as the
Obama presidency unfolds, rather than flipping out over
every appointment and policy move he makes. Far better
to de-link from the 24-hour news cycle that feeds on
micro-maneuvers, stop making definitive judgments based
on parsing the language of every pronouncement, and
keep our eyes on the broader contours of change.

Besides the sectors of the anti-capitalist left that
are stranded on Dogma Beach, there are those who see
the tide running high but are still watching from the
safety of the shore, hesitant to get in the water.
There are those who have been so long alienated from
mainstream political processes and so disgusted with
both political parties and all branches of government
that their default response is instinctive distrust.
They view Obama's presidency through the lens of
anticipatory disillusionment. Their basic orientation
is to analyze the administration's every move with the
goal of concluding, 'See, we told you so. Obama's gonna
burn you. You're gonna be disappointed.' This is a
mindset for jilted lovers, not political activists. Let
us grant without argument that, from the vantage point
of the left, there are many disappointments in store.
This is easy enough to predict based not only on
Obama's own politics but also on the alignment of
forces and institutions in which he is embedded. And so
what? We can survive disappointment over this or that
policy or concession as long as we are making headway
on the broader criteria above.

There are also those who stayed on the shoreline during
the campaign because they are wedded to localism as a
matter of preference, principle or habit. Others were
lodged in organizational forms that, for structural,
political or legal reasons, could not articulate with
the motion and structures of the presidential campaign.
These are complicated issues, bound up as they are with
questions of resources and patterns of philanthropy.
But for those who missed interacting with the motion of
millions against the right, against the white racial
monopoly on the executive branch, and for substantive
change, their absence should, at the very least, prompt
a serious examination of political orientation and
organizational form.

Finally, there are those who are struggling to
negotiate the existential shoals of a commitment to
anti-capitalist politics in a period when the system is
manifestly dying but not nearly at death's door (and
there have been all too many chronicles of that death
foretold); major alternative systems have only recently
collapsed or capitulated; and the vision, values and
program that might bind together an anti-capitalist
left and win broad support are still frustratingly
obscure. There's no remedy for this dilemma except to
live in the times we're in meeting the challenges we've
been given and making the most of every opportunity,
rather than anticipating capital's demise or pining for
a past beyond recovery.

In this period, then, the left has three tasks.

Our first job is to defend the democratic opening. This
is a job we share with broader progressive forces and
with centrists. Obama won big and retains the favorable
regard of a sizeable majority. And meanwhile the
Republican Party is in glorious disarray. But in no way
should we take this situation for granted. The new
administration faces daunting challenges and outright
crises on every front. And while the right is
disoriented and weakened, it has not and will not leave
the playing field. The principal players and
institutions of the right are, at this very moment,
plotting how to undermine the administration, challenge
every initiative that moves in the direction of
democracy, progress and peace, and regroup to seize
control, once again, of the state apparatus.

Defense of the democratic opening means many things and
ought to be the subject for discussion and strategizing
on the left. But in practical terms, first and
foremost, it means consolidating and extending the
electoral alliance that made the opening possible. Any
work that strengthens and broadens the voter engagement
of the constituencies and sectors that secured Obama's
election is work that defends the democratic opening.
This kind of voter education, registration and
mobilization work can be done in conjunction with an
extremely broad range of local campaigns and
initiatives. And anything that hastens the demise of
the southern strategy, builds on the wins in Florida,
North Carolina, and Virginia (along with the
significant southwestern shifts in New Mexico, Colorado
and Nevada), and challenges structural barriers to
voter participation (e.g., felony disfranchisement,
voter ID laws) is critical. All this is another way of
saying that the electoral arena is an essential site of
struggle for left and progressive forces in a way it
has not been in at least 20 years. And this work, in
which we have unity of purpose with the centrists, is
vital to widening the Democratic majority in the 2010
congressional races, winning a filibuster-proof Senate
majority, ensuring the successful re-election of Obama
in 2012, and shaping both the parameters of viable
Democratic candidates in 2016 and the outcome of that

Our second job is to contribute to building more
united, effective, combative and influential
progressive popular movements. This places the highest
premium on strengthening and extending our ties with
broader progressive forces, both inside and outside the
Democratic Party, with an eye towards building long-
term relationships and alliances among individuals,
organizations and sectors. Anything that thickens and
enriches the relationships among left and progressive
actors in labor, religious institutions, policy think
tanks, grassroots organizations, academia etc. is to be
supported in the interests of strengthening the
capacity of the left-progressive alliance to influence
policy, to encourage and shore up whatever progressive
inclinations might emerge from within the
administration, and to resist administration tendencies
to accommodation and capitulation to center-right
forces. At this early stage of Obama's tenure it is
already evident what some of the most vital left-
progressive alliance building ought to focus on. In
foreign policy, on war and militarism in general and on
Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, Iran and
non-proliferation in particular. In domestic policy, on
health care and on solutions to the economic crisis
that hold the financial sector accountable for reckless
and predatory practices while addressing the particular
vulnerabilities of working people, the poor, women,
immigrants and communities of color. And, at the
intersection of global and domestic policy, on oil
dependency and global warming. All that enhances our
capacity to constructively engage in debating and
influencing policy on these issues is to the good. All
that obstructs or distracts is highly problematic.

We've exited a period of collective psychic depression
only to enter one of global economic depression. Each
day, as the institutions of finance capital collapse,
the corruption, greed and mismanagement of the nation's
economic system are further revealed. Broad sectors of
the population have been shocked into a more skeptical
and critical stance towards capitalism, and the need
for some measure of structural change wins near-
universal acceptance. The clash of rising expectations
(encouraged by the hope and change themes of the Obama
campaign) and a sinking economy will likely spark new
levels and forms of popular resistance. In this
political environment, alliance building will be
complicated, messy and filled with political tensions
and tactical differences. It is imperative nonetheless.

Our third job, and perhaps the trickiest, is to build
the left. First let it be said that unless we are able
to demonstrate a genuine commitment and growing
capacity to take on the first two jobs, the third is a
non-starter, and a prescription for political
isolation. In other words, defending the democratic
opening in conjunction with the center and building
long-term relationships between the anti-capitalist
left and broad progressive sectors in the context of
the struggle over administration policy must be
understood as critical tasks in their own right, not
simply as arenas in which to advance an independent
left line or to recruit new adherents to an anti-
capitalist perspective. Realizing the progressive
potential of the Obama win requires the most committed
involvement with the twists and turns of politics on
the most pressing issues on the administration's
agenda. This same engagement is critical to rebuilding
the left, a long-term process that can be advanced
significantly in the context of Obama's presidency if,
and only if, the left can skillfully manage the
relationship and distinction between its own interests,
dynamics and challenges and those of broader political
forces. Why is this the case? On the tell no lies
front, the left is more isolated and fragmented than it
has been in forty years. Truly fine work is being done
by leftists in every region of the country and on every
social issue. But the left qua left is barely
breathing. This is not the place to go into the
historical (world historical and U.S. historical),
ideological, theoretical and organizational reasons why
this is so. But let us, at the very least, frankly
acknowledge that it is so. The current political
alignment provides an opportunity to break out of
isolation, marginalization and the habits of self-
marginalization accumulated during the neo-conservative
ascendancy. It provides the opportunity to initiate
and/or strengthen substantive relationships with
political actors in government, in the Democratic
Party, and in independent sectors, as well as within
the left itself - relationships to be built upon long
after the Obama presidency has come to an end. It
provides the opportunity to accumulate lessons about
political actors, alignments and centers of power
likewise relevant well beyond this administration. And
it provides the opportunity for the immersion of the
leaders, members and constituencies of left formations
in a highly accelerated, real world poli-sci class.

In these circumstances, among our biggest challenges is
how to attend to building the capacity of the left
without succumbing to the siren songs of dogma, the old
addictions of premature platform erection, or the self-
limiting pleasures of building parties in miniature.
For the anti-capitalist left, this is a period of
experimentation. There is no roadmap; there are no
recipes. Those organizational forms and initiatives
that enable us to synthesize experience, share lessons
and develop broad orientations and approaches to
seriously undertaking our first two tasks should be
encouraged. Those that would entrap us in the hermetic
enclosures of doctrinal belief should be avoided at all

The Obama presidency is a rare confluence of
individuals and events. There is no way to predict how
things will unfold over the next 4-8 years. But this
much we can foresee: if the opportunity at hand is
mangled or missed, the takeaway for the left will be
deepened isolation and fragmentation. If, on the other
hand, the left engages with this political opening
skillfully and creatively, it will emerge as a broader,
more vibrant force on the U.S. political spectrum,
better able to confront whatever the post-Obama world
will bring.


Linda Burnham is co-founder of the Women of Color
Resource Center (WCRC) and was its Executive Director
for 18 years. Burnham has been working on racial
justice and peace issues since the 1960s and on women-
of-color issues since the early 1970s, and has
published numerous articles on African-American women,
African-American politics, and feminist theory in a
wide range of periodicals and anthologies. In 2005
Burnham was nominated as one of 1000 Peace Women for
the Nobel Peace Prize. Burnham is a frequent featured
speaker on college campuses and to community groups,
addressing issues of women's rights, racial justice,
human rights and peace. Burnham's writing and
organizing are part of a lifelong inquiry into the
dynamic, often perilous intersections of race, class
and gender.


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