November 10, 2008

A Mandate for Real Change

Barrack Obama won the Presidential election in a landslide. That landslide was a mandate for the policies that Obama supported.

In his speech on Election Night, Barack Obama said, "This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change."

In the South Carolina Democratic primary debate (held on Martin Luther King Day), Obama said, "I don't think Dr. King would endorse any of us. I think what he would call upon the American people to do is to hold us accountable...I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that.”

2008 Election: The First Step of a Movement?
By Joe Volk, Executive Secretary
November 6, 2008

Historic Changes Have Not Come Easy

* British MP William Wilberforce didn’t volunteer to lead and win the anti-slavery law, he responded to a grassroots movement to translate protest into policy.
* Eloquent as he was, President Abraham Lincoln wasn’t an eager opponent of slavery, and the Civil War was not fought to free the slaves. That took a grassroots movement to translate protest into policy.
* As we "gray hairs" who watched the signing of the Voting Rights Act recall, President Lyndon Johnson, though he deserves credit, did not lead the way. That took a civil rights movement of people who gave everything they had, including sometimes their lives, so that our country would do the right thing.
* Barack Obama, as he himself acknowledged Tuesday night, didn’t win this election on his own. It took a movement to take him to the White House and to make history.

President-Elect Obama Transition site
Share your vision for what America can be, where President-Elect Obama should lead this country. Where should we start together?

Obama won a resounding victory not just for his charismatic personality, but for his policies. His message of Change captured the mood of America in a single word. A slogan can mean many things to many people but he gave the voters an idea of where that change might happen. He championed Hope when many had just about lost hope after eight years of Bush’s attacks on the Constitution, failed policies and disastrous wars. Before that we had eight years of Clinton, whose tawdry affairs undermined respect for the Presidency, whose pro-corporate policies undermined ordinary Americans’ security and whose sanctions and attacks on Iraq killed hundreds of thousands and set the stage for Bush’s war. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans perfected attack politics and Democrats rolled over and played dead, refusing to hold them accountable.

But Obama didn’t just run against all this. He laid out a series of proposals during the campaign that would make up the change he stood for. First of all was his opposition to the war in Iraq. He opposed it from the start, which set him apart from his Democratic rivals for the nomination. He can be faulted for the details of his plan to end the war, which doesn’t go as far as most Americans would like, but there can be no doubt that they voted for peace, both in 2006 and in 2008.

Obama brought forward a plan for Universal Healthcare. Again, there can be questions about the details but it is the concept that is important. Congress will have to hammer out the details and Obama’s plan will undoubtedly be changed in the process. Polls indicate that most Americans favor a single payer system, similar to Canada’s.

Obama’s rhetoric in response to the economic collapse stressed the importance of helping the middle class, rather than just pouring money into Wall Street’s pockets. He did support the bailout plan but he also called for middle class tax cuts and rolling back Bush’s cuts for the rich. He urged greater governmental oversight and re-regulation of financial markets. He talked about the country as a community in which people used government policies to help each other. He said that those who were better off shouldn’t mind policies that “spread the wealth around” and helped those who were struggling.

The Republicans attacked him mercilessly for these proposals. They said that his modest proposal to draw down our forces in Iraq would throw away victory and help terrorists. They said that his economic policies were “class warfare” and they called him a socialist. These attacks didn’t resonate with the voters, who elected him nonetheless in a landslide. That landslide was a mandate for the policies that Obama advocated and a stinging rejection of the Republican attacks. The President-elect should take note and press forward with his program.

The Republicans ridiculed Obama for being a community organizer but it was precisely his realization that the way to win was by organizing a grassroots campaign that led to his victory. In this he dovetailed with Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean’s strategy. Dean developed his 50 state strategy of grassroots organizing everywhere, rather than just contesting swing states, in his 2004 Presidential campaign. Although that campaign was not successful it did develop a group of committed activists who were able to secure his election as DNC Chair. Their support also helped Obama win election to the Senate, as part of an effort to support progressive candidates across the country.

Of course, Obama also raised an unprecedented amount of money from corporate interests, who will hope for sympathetic treatment from his Administration in return. His proposals aim in the right direction but tend to fall short of public expectations. This sets up a political conflict at the heart of his Presidency. It could go either way. It would be easy for Obama to roll back some of the Bush excesses and return to Clinton era policies. His early appointments tend to point in that direction. On the other hand he has created a huge grassroots movement inflamed with the hope for real change. The question is whether that movement will persist after the election and whether it will be able to push him in a more progressive direction.

Franklin Roosevelt is reported to have told an activist who came to him with a proposal, “I agree with you. Now go out and make me do it.” There are indications that Obama is receptive to that kind of pressure. Time and again he has stressed that change does not happen from the top down, but from the bottom up. That is his community organizing experience speaking. He has even set up a transition website: where people can, among other things, “Share your vision for what America can be, where President-Elect Obama should lead this country. Where should we start together?” I find this a very hopeful sign. Even the “” URL speaks of using the government to help bring about change. And asking for grassroots input invites ordinary people to join the process and stay involved in setting policy. I hope that it is widely used. And I hope that the Obama Administration pays attention to the input they are getting from the bottom up.

My impression is that Obama does not feel strong enough to push through the kind of changes Americans want. After all, Congress is still more conservative than the voters and very much beholden to corporate money. He has said that he wants to be President of all the people and not get bogged down in partisanship. Given the history of Republican negativity, that will be a difficult task. Pressure from the voters on a large scale will strengthen his hand and push him towards real change. Activists can help by continuing their work on the issues of peace and justice. It will undoubtedly be frustrating if Obama moves too slowly or not far enough to deal with our problems but there is hope that after the last eight years of being shut out, there is a chance to influence policy. Activists should redouble their efforts, in order to push Obama and the Democratic Congress as far as possible.

This is a representation of the final paragraph in graphic form created at

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