At the risk of alarming steady customers, inured to a weekly diet of apocalyptic pessimism, I must confess that I am becoming optimistic. This may seem in its way perverse. Just when a new President sends Congress a first message filled with perilous tidings at home and abroad, your Washington reporter suddenly begins to see hope ahead. I even feel a little embarrassed, like the prophet Jeremiah caught giving three lusty cheers... The appointments, the policy positions, have something in them for everyone.
Necessity may make his course tortuous but the direction is clearly towards peace. I feel that for the first time since Roosevelt we have a first-rater in the Presidency, a young man of energy, zest, and ability. It is a post in which any man of any quality must grow, but when a man starts out with the gifts [the President] so clearly has, we have the right to hope he will grow to greatness, and perform valiantly in the cause of mankind.
Are these the words of a Washington blogger caught up in the euphoria of the Obama Presidency? A national columnist?
No. The above was from a column written on February 6, 1961 by the doyen of progressive journalists, I.F. Stone. Stone - normally not given to effusive praise - was swept up into the magic of the Kennedy election, finding the all too familiar clarion call of hope, youth, and energy.
Nearly three years later, on December 9, 1963, following the Kennedy assassination, Stone wrote as follows:
...Kennedy, when the tinsel was stripped away, was a conventional leader, no more than an enlightened conservative, cautious as an old man for all his youth, with a basic distrust of the people and an astringent view of the evangelical as a tool of leadership.
I don't know that many will look back upon the Obama years with the same disappointment - history doesn't give us perfect parallels. But I do know that when an experienced, somewhat jaundiced progressive like Stone can be seduced by campaign rhetoric and blinded by the "tinsel" of the moment, the celebration of Obama's election may mark a similar moment of self-deception. It is a measure of Stone's integrity that he admitted it (see his In a Time of Torment).
Already there are healthy signs that many progressives have lost the blush of first love. The Nation has published several editorials both critical of and with disappointment in policy decisions and compromises taken by the Obama administration. Recently, the journal has offered a call to activism, departing from the misguided advice of not rocking Obama's boat.
Typical of jilted lovers, many will turn against Obama with a bitter sense of betrayal. This is both naive and misplaced. Like Kennedy, Obama is neither an agent for change nor a closet reactionary. Like Kennedy, Obama is the executive of a vast structure welded to interests that have little in common with the interests of the majority of US citizens. Admirers of Kennedy will recall the enormous forces arrayed against change in his time: the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defense contractors, the CIA, Southern politicians, etc. Detractors will, with equal passion, note how little he did to challenge these forces. Likewise, those still taken with Obama fever will point with disgust at the obstructionist Republicans, the "Blue Dog" Democrats, the "disruptive" left, and other evil forces, as though they are not always a part of the two-party carnival.
It is not Obama, but this corrupted, broken two-party system of governance that betrays our aspirations. It is not designed for change, but to smother it. Never in the history of this undemocratic "democracy" have the wants and needs of the citizens been so distant from the intent of its ruling elites. This reality cannot be laid at Obama's feet.
The only antidote to the rot of this system is political independence within, but especially outside of the existing two parties. There is simply no reason that activists engaged in Democratic Party circles cannot work outside - independently, uncompromisingly, and vigorously - on progressive, advanced issues with no concern for ruffled feathers. To fail to do so, betrays any commitment to real change.
But more importantly, a divorce from the Democratic Party is long overdue. Those who see the decadence of the Democratic Party - and I don't understand how anyone could miss it - need to find a new home in the anti-corporate third-party movement and the struggle for socialism.
For the immediate future, we need to press ahead - with a national rally for single payer, with picket lines around the headquarters of corporate and elected leaders who oppose EFCA, with a call for a thirty hour work week, with elimination of the social security tax cap, with anti-war, anti-imperialist actions, and a host of other urgent tasks. If Obama wants, he can come along...