Obama and the Progressive Community

As January 20th approaches and President-elect Obama becomes America’s new Commander-in-Chief, those who helped propel him to the presidency will anxiously be waiting to see where on the ideological spectrum his actions will fall.

Attending events around New York City, I have consistently been hearing two points of view.  The first is, “Thank God he got elected. Let’s give the man a chance.” The second is, “We’re going to have to hold his feet to the fire.” And that’s the exact phrase that is invariably used. The euphoria of November 4th and the upcoming excitement surrounding the inauguration are competing with the reality of each looming crisis, from the economy to Gaza.

Disappointment came early for many when Obama named Hillary Clinton as his choice for Secretary of State. At a Code Pink fundraiser in Manhattan, hosted by Paulette Cole, CEO and Creative Director of ABC Home, the optimism was cautious. Given that Code Pink is a highly activist and energized community (Cole spoke passionately about using “commerce as a tool to effect change” and the work of the ABC Home & Planet Foundation), it came as no surprise that opinions were clear and strong.

Jodie Evans, a co-founder of Code Pink, told me plainly, “I’m a little concerned about foreign policy. The wave he [Obama] rode was an anti-war wave.” Evans continued, “I’m unhappy there isn’t one anti-war voice” [in foreign policy]. She spoke about Code Pink’s new campaign, “War is so over.” Reflecting on when she heard the news of Hillary’s appointment she said, “I was in Iran when it happened. It was painful.” Referencing the m.o. that Code Pink has   become known for, Evans explained, “We’re multi-layered. We’re visual, vocal, persistent and consistent…We’re constantly trying to get to the truth. We just can’t continue the status quo.” The point of view for Code Pink is that war can’t be the answer. This may put them on a collision course with the Obama cabinet – especially regarding future policy in Afghanistan.

Former Congresswoman Liz Holtzman was present at the gathering. “Code Pink is about the audacity of truth,” she said. Medea Benjamin, Evan’s co-founding partner, was succinct when she said, “We are going to lead this administration in the direction we want to go.” Benjamin’s concern centered on how Code Pink could help to tell the story surrounding the issue of sanctions on Iran, which she believes only hurts the populace. “We realize our commonality with a lot of the Iranian women. They have told us that U.S. sanctions and military threats give their government more power.”

Nancy Kricorian, the coordinator of Code Pink New York City, said, “When Obama was elected, I felt giddy with relief because the alternative was going headlong over a precipice.” After a pause she added, “He’s surrounding himself with hawks. I’m waiting to see.”

Democracy Now! founder Amy Goodman echoed Kricorian’s concerns. “It’s a very serious issue – who has his ear. Movements now are absolutely critical. On November 4th, the world breathed a sigh of relief. But it’s not about Barack Obama anymore.” Goodman was clear that the attitude of “wait and see” was a “deadly” one. “Global warming, health care, the economy… how are these issues going to be resolved?” she asked rhetorically. “What matters now,” she answered, “is policy. Who pressures him [Obama] and who is around him.”

CodePink is building out a campaign housed on their site which is being called RemindObama. It has a seven-point program of holding Obama to his election promises.

Look for their presence at the Washington festivities.

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Growing out of a letter from feminist historians to President-elect Obama for a “new new deal,” a January meeting was held in Manhattan bringing together academics working to formulate an   agenda for their view of an economic recovery policy. Arriving early, I was able to chat with Professor Annelise Orleck, who mentioned that she was deeply unhappy about Rick Warren’s presence at the Inauguration.

“That said,” she indicated, “I’m keeping an open mind.” There were copies of the National Council of Women’s Organizations recommendations being handed out. The top paragraph included the premise of recognizing the mission to ensure that “women’s traditional work, caring for children, families and communities, is properly valued by society, supported by government, and increasingly undertaken by men as well as women.”

It was put forth that “a first goal should be to raise issues that are otherwise going to be neglected.” There was the concern of “where are women in the stimulus package?” and the nagging question of whether “care was being gendered.” A key component voiced was to ensure that women and people of color were adequately represented in getting jobs through federally funded projects. The group was focused on making sure that the New Deal era protocol of giving the majority of jobs to white men was seriously revamped.

In a follow-up phone conversation with Felicia Kornbluh, I learned that feminist economists were joining the pre-existing group of historians, and they were establishing themselves as a combined presence at the blog Women for a Fair Economy. Kornbluh qualified their role as “maintaining a focus on women and gender in any economic plan” and “making sure we’re part of the conversation.”

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A litmus test for many will be the stand that the Obama administration puts forth on accountability regarding the actions of Bush and his key players on the issue of torture and civil rights. The conversation is out there, and has been featured in numerous posts including a January 9th article at Talking Points Memo by Elana Schor. Jonathan Turley, Constitutional Law Professor at George Washington University, has been seen on both the Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow shows, where he has been explaining the high stakes for all Americans in getting this right.

Congressman and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) introduced H.R. 104 entitled “The National Commission on Presidential War Powers and Civil Liberties,” which would establish a Blue Ribbon Commission of experts from outside the government to investigate the policies that were “undertaken by the Bush administration under claims of unreviewable war powers.”

Pamela Lyn Kemp, a political blogger told me, “No one admires Obama more than I, but I am not going to give him a free pass.” Kemp has been active in promoting an Internet action advising people to contact their representatives to support H.R. 104, and to keep a watch on the bill’s progression on OpenCongress.org.

Daniel Noon, a Master’s student at George Mason University in the Peace Operations Policy Program (POPP), who is interested in the Resolution from a policy and national security perspective, has created a Facebook page to raise visibility and awareness. He wrote me by e-mail:

“…With all of the other important issues that are going to be top-priorities, this [H.R. 104] could easily be lost among the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the nation’s financial troubles. I believe that it is important as a nation to identify and confront our history and mistakes that have been made as we have struggled to adapt to a post-9/11 world. I don’t necessarily see this as an effort to pursue criminal action (however I would not take that option off the table), but more as a truth and reconciliation effort to repair the damage that has been done at home and abroad.

There have been mixed signals from the administration and in congress as to whether there is currently enough support to move forward with this legislation…My hope is that in a small way, the H.R.104 group on Facebook will be able to contribute to that effort.”

As Amy Goodman said to me, referencing the election of Obama, “This is just an opportunity. The change hasn’t happened yet.” Underscoring the need for each individual to be a part of the solution, she stressed, “The lesson is – it is completely up to you.”

I’d like to believe that Barack Obama wouldn’t have it any other way.

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