In St. Louis, I remember vividly a community workshop put on by The Justice Institute to assess President Obama’s first 100 days. JI is a progressive organizing and training institute. It assessed Obama’s performance up to the 100 days in three areas: education, healthcare and peace. The new president received a few B’s, mostly C’s and D’s. He received no A’s – too early to be an exemplary president but he received no F’s – too early to tag him as a failure. Clearly, by the 100 days, the thrill was gone for the transformative change that Obama supporters were promised.
During his campaign and after his inauguration as the 44th U.S. President, Obama told us to hold him accountable, to keep his feet to the fire. We have failed to do so and I believe the lack of leadership by the Left can be pointed to as the main reason.
African Americans who make up a significant part of the Democratic base were initially ambivalent about this black man with a funny name.
Many were loyal to Hillary Clinton until she lost the Democratic nomination. Eventually, the charismatic, articulate black man of Kenyan descent won them over during one of the longest presidential campaigns ever. After wailing and praying that he survive a racist’s bullet, black folks went to the polls in record numbers and got our Messiah.
President Obama was cut a lot of slack from the beginning of his term given the hot mess that George W created during his 8 years. The Bush Administration added $4 trillion dollars to the national debt; created a net loss of over one million jobs taking the crown from President Herbert Hoover as having the worst jobs-creation performance by a President. Bush gave the rich elite big tax breaks, a $700 billion dollars no-strings-attached bailout, and deregulation. He took the country into an expensive and illegal war. Obama inherited a tanking economy and the list goes on. Add to the mix, the stifling antics by the Grand Ole Party of No and the explosive racial fears throughout the nation that are always simmering just below the surface.
President Obama is no leftist and has never proclaimed to be one. Some of us have tried to keep that notion in political perspective but far too many of us have unreasonable expectations on various levels. We believed that Obama wanted to or could make change without understanding the political landscape that he would have to operate in. I am painfully aware of the Obama tailor-made blunders, i.e. no public option to the health care bill, beery polemics at the White House with Professor Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, etc.
Obama is no community organizer. He did what a number of self-serving people do – learn just enough of the organizing basics to advance their agendas and careers. I see this pervasive practice operating most notably within labor unions and the nonprofit world.
This brings me to the progressives, the radicals, the social movements, the real organizers. What did we do during the Obama campaign and what have we been doing since he came into office?
I give Barack Obama his props for running an effective and imaginative campaign that drew in millions who actively participated in generating a massive tidal wave that swept him into office. Obama is probably single-handedly responsible for the 7.5 million more Democratic voters that came out in 2004 for John Kerry. His savvy use of social networking brought an unprecedented number of young people into the electoral process. His grassroots approach to fundraiser produced a record-breaking half billion dollars from almost 4 million donors. To the Left, I said “Take notes!” We didn’t.
While the fury of the campaign raged on, sections of the Left were embroiled in the age-old debate about the efficacy of electoral politics. Others jumped into the campaign with everything they had except an independent political strategy. Those remaining hardly created a critical mass to impact the Obama campaign or his administration. Based on the historic numbers of young people, people of color and working class voters engaged by the campaign, our organizational memberships should have increased ten-fold and new energy and fresh creativity infused into the mass movements. It didn’t happen.
The Left is now being left out of the Obama administration. We couldn’t even save Van Jones’ job. Our impotence as a political force is no longer a secret. We will not be able to philosophize our way out of this malaise. We will not be able email or text our way to freedom. It will take some real Ella Baker-style organizing to build the kind of political base needed to confront the empire and bring about the kind of changes one man can never bring on by himself.
So, if the Left was assessed on the same quality of life indicators that The Justice Institute evaluated Obama on, and say throw in housing and juvenile crime, what grade would we give ourselves? We don’t have to go far for the truthful answer; a look at our working class neighborhoods and its residents says it all. The Left must get serious about analysis, strategy and organization and not just to impact federal politics but to drill down deeper on the local level.
What is the challenging work ahead for the Left?
We must educate and train an army of new organizers while updating and strengthening the skills of veteran organizers. Our determination should be fueled by the fact that neither the white power structure or the masses take us seriously. I’m not talking about the good, mass work of individuals; I’m talking about an entire movement.
We need to intensify the fight-back and claim some victories in the every day struggles of working people. We have to earn the respect of the people that the social movements tend to glorify in their rhetoric or mission statements but whom they have little meaningful relationships with. You have to know the people, understand the conditions and organize resources through face time not Facebook.
We have to be involved in the bankrupt, bourgeois democratic process because it’s one of the few spaces where we can engage masses of people into envisioning a new kind of society. The caveat is not getting sucked into the Democratic Party but to have a dual strategy that is implemented internally and externally. The electoral arena is not the only way to build power but it is an important one.
To that end, we must begin grooming potential candidates for public office so that we can have some real choices and expect allegiance to a progressive agenda. It should be time out for candidates merely seeking a job or a political career on the backs of working people.
Progressives must be accountable to one another and to our base of supporters. We must end sectarian and individualism as they are harmful to our operational unity and to our goals. No one is beyond constructive criticism; we should be sophisticated enough to value criticism and self-criticism.
The Left should do more than hold Obama to his campaign promises; we should help materialize them. If nothing else, the GOP strategy is consistent and it is steamrolling across the country, making laws and decisions that will affect our quality of life for years to come. We can’t be smug as we throw daggers at the centrist president; we now know his weaknesses, his alliances and his thought-processes. President Obama’s power is limited, ours is unlimited if we use it wisely.
Forward to building a genuine people’s movement led by those most affected by poverty, racism and gender oppression.
Jamala Rogers is a long-time community organizer in St. Louis, MO. She has held and currently holds leadership and membership in many organizations that share her vision for a more just and peaceful world. As a black radical feminist and human rights educator, she views her organizing through these lenses. Jamala is a founding member and former Chairperson of the Organization for Black Struggle, a mass organization with roots in the African-American community for over 30 years. She also serves on the National Executive Committee of Freedom Road Socialist Organization. She is a featured columnist for the award-winning St. Louis American newspaper, the city’s largest black weekly and is on the editorial board of Black Commentator. She has authored many articles for both local and national publications on issues that she is passionately involved in. Her first book, The Best of the Way I See It and Other Political Writings, has just been released.