It is said by some on the left that the Communist Party USA has no differences with President Obama. Just to set the record straight: we do and we express them. For example, we opposed the nearly unconditional Wall Street bailouts and deployment of more troops to Afghanistan. We argued for a bigger stimulus package. And we said the president should push the envelope more; otherwise he runs the danger of the extreme right turning the popular discontent over the economic crisis against him, the Democratic Party, and the people’s movement that supports his agenda. Isn’t this what we saw in Tuesday’s election in Massachusetts, where a right-winger was elected to the Senate?
But in expressing our differences with the president, communists go to great lengths to state them in a constructive and unifying way. We don’t do it to score points or demonstrate our “militancy.” We don’t lose sight of the class nature of this struggle.
The main organizations of the working class and people are not always in sync with the president on every issue either. But they don’t turn their differences into an unbridgeable divide between them and him. In fact, they consider him a friend and are mindful of the unrelenting attack, steeped in racism and other forms of division, coming from right-wing extremists, against our nation’s first African American president – something that was so evident in the Senate election in Massachusetts.
The left has something to learn from the approach of these people’s organizations. We are too comfortable in our role as an exceedingly small, but “principled and militant” grouping in U.S. politics. Such a posture, which could easily gain greater currency in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, may feel satisfying, but it won’t help us evolve into a political player that exercises a major influence on U.S. politics nor get us a flea hop closer to socialism.
In my view, the president has made mistakes, particularly his handling of the financial, jobs and health care crises, but he isn’t the main obstacle to social change; he is not the “enemy,” or even an “enemy.” President Obama is a reformer, not a socialist reformer, not a radical reformer, and not even a consistent anti-corporate reformer, but a reformer nonetheless whose agenda creates space for the broader people’s movement to deepen and extend the reform process in a non-revolutionary period.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were Democratic Party regulars, but, with the help of a popular and sustained insurgency, both of them stepped outside of their comfort zone and morphed into change-makers, thus opening up space for substantive reform – Roosevelt with the New Deal and Johnson with civil and voting rights, Medicare, federal aid for education and the “War on Poverty.” Unfortunately, Johnson’s mistaken decision to escalate the war in Vietnam stained, perhaps irreparably, his presidency and historical legacy.
Barack Obama in my opinion has the same potential to “grow on the job” and enact reforms that measurably improve the lives of the American people and reframe our nation’s place in the world. Right-wing extremists and powerful sections of capital feel much the same. Hence, the formidable opposition striving to sabotage, block or contain even the tiniest reforms by any means necessary. To make matters much more difficult, the broad coalition supporting reform is not yet of sufficient size, strength and understanding to consistently elect people’s candidates as well as guarantee passage of the president’s reform agenda – let alone radical reforms such as sustainable and just economic development, a national “profit-free” health service, a massive full employment program with affirmative action and living wage guarantees, fully funded, integrated, quality public education from child care to college, and a new foreign policy that accents peace, cooperation, equitable relations and a commitment to end global poverty.
Until that movement is at such a level, it is premature to say what the political limits of this president are, or, to put it differently, smugly dismiss him as simply another Clintonian Democrat. When our movement reaches the level of the popular upsurges of the 1930s and ’60s, we will be in a better position to say where he fits on the political spectrum and whether his views are elastic enough to accommodate more deep-going changes.
Don’t think we will succeed if the Obama presidency fails. If it fails, we will once again be fighting an uphill, defensive struggle as we were in the Bush and Reagan years, or worse. Witness the election of Republican Scott Brown to the Senate.
There will inevitably be differences and tensions with this White House as we go forward. In most instances, the differences will pivot around the pace and depth of reform; in some instances, such as the decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan, the differences are more fundamental.
The role of the left is to help navigate these differences, while at the same time infusing energy and clarity and sustaining the strategic unity of the people’s movement against the main enemy – right-wing extremism and powerful sections of big capital. This admittedly is a difficult needle to thread, but, as we know from the experience of the 1930s and ’60s, it was done then. And there is no reason to think that it can’t be done now. In doing so, the left of our time will move into the center of U.S politics.