Donnerstag, 6. November 2008

Yes, we can make Obama into a progressive President! (Can we?)

I was right where the election was lost, in Ohio, in 2004. This time, I was nowhere near American soil - and my American friends won it. I sincerely hope there is no causal connection! Though, if there were, being stuck in Berlin while history was made across the pond might have felt a little less pointless ... No matter what, I am delighted that a new puppy is moving into the White House. May be it is the budding daddy in me, but I thought mentioning this gift to his children was one of the highlights in Obama´s eloquent victory speech. I had to earn my dog as a child too. But I only had to memorize a long name of a character in a Karl May novel, not endure my daddy being in campaigning mode for 21 months. For which I am grateful. Just as I am grateful, that we have at least 4 years of excellent sounding speeches from the American President to look forward to. It´s a relief to know that we will finally be rid of Bush´s nasal voice and instead will constantly have snippets of one of the most eloquent public speakers alive broadcast into our living rooms. Relief, indeed, is the strongest emotion I feel. Relief because America rejected the Bush years. Relief, also, because - after the experiences of 2000 and 2004 - I lived in constant fear that this could still go wrong. Even after the first results came in, I was a nervous wreck ... - Much has been written about how Obama won this race. How he energized youth, won over the Hispanic vote, got the full support of African Americans (which was not a done deal at all, given that he is by no means a typical African American!) and, last but not least, did better among white voters than Kerry did. As a campaigner, what has impressed me most is the professional brilliance of his campaigning style. Obama linked a very large narrative (´Change, Hope, The Refounding of the American Dream´), which he stuck to through thick and thin for the whole campaign, with an unprecedented local organizing effort. The world saw the big rallies. But Obama knows, that what really won this election were the many offices he opened all over the country; the little volunteer clusters he managed to create even in previously strongly Republican states (like Indiana!), the groundswell of support he built - everywhere. He had some support in this, of course. The unions, Move.On and others had been trying to build effective political machines since the 2004 race at least (and had had some first notable successes in the 2006 congressional elections). But Obama can still take most of the credit. As a Chicago inner city organizer, he was a disciple of Saul Alinsky, whose ´Rules for Radicals´ are still one of the best handbooks for local campaigners ever written. Now Obama turned lessons learned in local organizing, into a continent-wide political movement. He really did build his campaign, "block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand". - It is our task now, to use this groundswell of grassroots activists to put pressure on Obama! We need to use the same brilliant organizing skills to make the most of the political opportunity that the Obama victory represents. May be Naomi Klein is right when she asserts that "this election has proved, ... that the real middle is far to the left of its previously advertised address". But that, of course, does not mean that Obama will govern for the progressive end of America´s ´middle´. Obama has made some decent promises. But he has also had some pretty unhelpful economic advice; his foreign policy is still focused on exerting American power (though it will be interesting to see if he manages a new beginning with Cuba; 35% of Cuban-Americans backed him, so he has a mandate of sorts). Obama supports the death penalty, increasing domestic oil production, unsustainable biofuels and the coal industry, the biggest climate offender this planet knows. To make things worse, Obama, of course, will now come under immense pressure from the corporate sharks that made a killing under Bush and from the stronger than ever (if largely privatized) ´military-industrial complex´. To counter all this, we must ensure that the movement Obama built becomes a mighty and autonomous force, that, as Wallerstein puts it "will be pushing him, as president, to the left, both directly and via its impact on members of Congress. It is very difficult to say exactly where this force would push Obama. But its impact may turn out to be comparable to that of the so-called religious right on Republican party policies in the last thirty years." We know how much the religious bigots managed to achieve. If progressives can unite now, then: Yes, we can turn Obama into a progressive President. A man that delivers universal health care to all Americans; a man that gives back to America the right to form a union across the country; a man that turns around the juggernaut of rising CO2 emissions and cuts them by as much as the science demands; a man that gets Congress to support, through finance, an energy revolution in the developing world. - Dear American friends, I so wish I could have been with you to celebrate November 4th. Now, the real work begins. Obama´s victory was the necessary condition for change. But, as he said himself in the speech, it is very far from sufficient. "It cannot happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice", Obama says. He is right. But he will need to be reminded. Especially on the environment. For, as my friend Kenny says: "Compromise and unity are wonderful governing principles, unless they supercede the health of the planet, which is the foundation for all human well-being." Let´s get to work! P.S. For a far more sophisticated take on Obama, organizing and Alinsky, read on here.

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