Anger on the left at the Obama administration is mounting. Infuriated by the tax cut deal, the unilateral announcement of a pay freeze for federal workers, the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, the attempted free trade deal with South Korea, the lack of public option on health care, an education “reform” that expands some of the most hated Bush-era policies, and plenty more, many progressives are questioning whose side the president is on.
Obama’s compromise with the Republicans on tax cuts was particularly hard to stomach for many on the left. The Bush-era tax cuts for the rich were extended for two years in exchange for lower taxes for the “middle class” and a thirteen-month extension of unemployment benefits. It’s estimated that at least one-quarter of the savings under the tax cut deal will go to the top one percent of Americans.
As a further concession, the estate tax rate was lowered to 35% for 2011 and 2012 (it was 55% in 2001), with the first $5 million exempt from even that rate. Meanwhile, taxes will actually increase for the lowest-income sections of the working class – the 51 million people who make under $20,000 a year as individuals or $40,000 as a family.
Perhaps worst of all, this deal plays into the Republicans’ “starve the beast” strategy, as tax cuts for the wealthy increase the national deficit and fuel calls to make cuts to Social Security and other parts of the social safety net relied on by working people. The bill is laced with a “poison pill” because it reduces the Social Security payroll tax rate from 6.2 to 4.2 percent for the next two years. Obama presents this as reducing taxes on workers, but the policy plays into the hand of those aiming to “reform” and privatize Social Security.
Obama has justified his repeated compromises as pragmatic gestures, in contrast to the “purist positions” of his critics on the left. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” has become his mantra. Yet as Kevin Baker wrote in Harper’s, Obama’s pragmatism “is not really pragmatism at all, just surrender to the usual corporate interests” (“Barack Hoover Obama,” Harper’s, July 2009).
This is becoming evident to growing numbers of Obama supporters. As liberal NY Times columnist Paul Krugman recently wrote, “More and more, it’s becoming clear that progressives who had their hearts set on Obama were engaged in a huge act of self-delusion. Once you got past the soaring rhetoric you noticed, if you actually paid attention to what he said, that he largely accepted the conservative storyline, a view of the world, including a mythological history, that bears little resemblance to the facts” (NY Times, 11/21/10).
A number of liberal blogs and publications are now calling for a left-wing challenge to Obama in the Democratic primaries. As Michael Lerner of Tikkun explained in a Washington Post editorial, “This campaign would pressure Obama toward much more progressive positions and make him a more viable 2012 candidate.” To Lerner, a primary challenge is the only way to “save Obama’s presidency” and defeat the Republican candidate in the elections.
Almost all the supporters of a primary challenge to Obama concede that it would have almost no chance of defeating him, but hope that it would help push him to the left. They also believe that it would be the most effective way to reach millions with progressive ideas. As Robert Kuttner, editor of the liberal magazine The American Prospect and another major supporter of this idea, writes, “a primary fight is a terrific organizing tool. It could force the media to take note of a progressive message about the economy” – as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, civil liberties, the environment, and other issues (Huffington Post, 12/5/10).
What is the record of progressive primary challenges within the Democrats? The example of Dennis Kucinich is instructive. In both 2004 and 2008, Kucinich ran on a pro-worker, anti-war platform in the primaries. Yet both times, he eventually urged his supporters to get behind the pro-war, pro-free trade Democratic Party candidate. Kucinich has already said he will not run in 2012, bizarrely stating, “What we have to do is focus on coming together for the purposes of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan” (USA Today, 8/12/10) – even as Obama has escalated the war!
Such a strategy presents very little threat to Obama and the leadership of the Democratic Party, since supporters of a primary challenge can be relied upon to support Obama in the general election. As political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell explained in the film "An Unreasonable Man," "If you don't show them you're capable of not voting for them, they don't have to listen to you… I worked within the Democratic Party. I didn't listen or have to listen to anything on the left while I was working in the Democratic Party, because the left had nowhere to go.”
Obama could undoubtedly tack to the left during the primaries, all the while maintaining his same fundamental pro-corporate policies. This would leave people who want an immediate end to the war in Afghanistan, dramatic cuts in the military budget, a jobs program paid for through taxes on the rich, and other progressive positions without a voice in the 2012 elections. It would encourage workers and youth to again lower their expectations to what is acceptable to the Democrats and Republicans – meaning what is acceptable to Corporate America.
Supporters of this strategy will argue that it will help build up a more progressive base within the Democratic Party and help pull the party to the left, analogous to the impact the Tea Party has had on the Republicans. Yet the result of this strategy is to create illusions that the Democrats have room for progressives even as they carry out essentially the same big business policies.
The experience of the first two years of the Obama administration is a lesson in what the Democratic Party represents. While there are a few well-meaning politicians with progressive ideas in the party, it is fundamentally dominated by corporate interests, structurally designed to produce big business politicians like Obama and Bill Clinton before him. The party is a dead end for progressives. It can’t be reformed, and the sooner that is realized, the better.
Instead of supporting a primary candidate who will eventually back Obama anyway, the best strategy would be to run the strongest possible independent left-wing challenge in the 2012 presidential elections. Rather than making excuses for Obama and the Democrats, such a campaign would give a voice to all those angered at the bailouts, the tax cuts for the rich, the unemployment crisis, and the wars. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars backing the Democrats, unions and other social movement organizations should put their money into running their own independent left candidates.
Some will argue that such a campaign is “premature,” and that activists should instead focus all our resources on building movements to fight for reforms. The problem with this argument is that it neglects the links between elections and movements. Elections are immensely politicizing occasions, when millions of people follow politics closely. It weakens our movements when they have no electoral voice. A prominent left-wing, anti-war, pro-worker independent challenge could raise expectations, help bring together progressive activists and workers, and sow the seeds for future challenges.
Others will raise the specter of a right-wing Republican presidency, and argue that we must at all costs support Obama as the lesser evil. Yet Obama has continued many of the policies of the Bush administration. Further, under this logic, one might legitimately ask when it is acceptable to challenge the Democrats. 2016? 2020? 3020? Will there ever be a year when there isn’t a Republican threat?
Regardless, as the first two years of the Obama’s presidency have made clear to millions, the only way to achieve real change will be by building independent grassroots movements. These movements would be strengthened by an independent challenge in the 2012 elections, as a step toward building a new political party to represent working people and youth and present a real competitor to the two-party monopoly over the political system.