Obama and the politics of outrage

Some of the commentary from the left on President’s Obama’s recent State of the Union address struck me as too negative, even cynical in a few instances. It’s said that the speech was at once too little, too late, and too celebratory. Some left critics went further, claiming that it was nothing but idle, and even deceptive, chatter since the president knew that any progressive initiatives in his speech are dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled 93rd Congress.

This contrasts with the reaction of the larger movement. Labor’s take on the speech was very positive. Much the same can be said about the African American community and other communities of color (for example, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and NAACP). The movements for women’s and gay rights found stuff in the speech that they liked, as did many fighting for policing and sentencing reforms. Ditto the immigrant rights movement and the organizations and people fighting for livable wages and union rights. And progressives in Congress said they were buoyed by the president’s speech. Photos showed them leading the cheers to the speech, while congressional Republicans, looking dour and sitting silent, inwardly burned with rage at Obama’s every word and his mere presence at the podium.

In other words, the major democratic forces and movements got a lift from the speech, while understanding full well that the terrain of struggle is still uphill. They saw openings and opportunities in Obama’s words, though not agreeing with his every word.

They liked how he framed many questions and the spirit and oratorical power that he exhibited to spotlight the deeply reactionary role of the Republican Party, even if they thought his counter-proposals should have gone further.

And they were encouraged by the fact that the speech signaled a refusal on the president’s part to cede initiative and ground to the Republicans and their reactionary agenda over the next two years, despite enormous pressure on him to do so coming from many directions.

How do we explain this contrast, this differing take on this State of the Union address?

Speaking generally, the leaders of the democratic movements don’t pigeonhole the president as simply an unreconstructed neoliberal. They don’t peg him as nothing more than a centrist in the mold of Bill Clinton. Nor do they believe that he cynically “plays” the American people with his “fancy” rhetoric and oratory, while paying obeisance to his first and abiding focus group – Wall Street (and its deep pockets.) They also don’t subscribe to the notion that Obama’s presidency is summed up as “the triumph of identity as content” (Adolph Reed writing in Harper’s). Finally, they are particularly aware of the toxic, crude, and unremitting racist invective directed at the president.

In other words, these mass movement leaders don’t hollow Obama out to the point where he is nothing but an abstract and frozen political category with absolutely no progressive instincts, potential, or record of achievement. In fact, they note that the president has a genuine democratic sensibility and a list of political and legislative successes that have made a difference, large and small, in the lives of millions of working class people.

Moreover, in sharp contrast to some on the left, leaders of the main mass organizations want him on their side. Victories, they know from experience, are much more difficult to secure with a president opposing them or assuming a position of neutrality. They have no truck with a one-sided Howard Zinn view of historical progress and radical social change, in which political compromises, unreliable allies, tactical and strategic retreats, stages of struggle, participation in electoral politics, and so on are to be studiously avoided. Based on their real movement experience, they conclude that such a hopelessly uncomplicated reading of the past and what it will take to make a more livable future for the vast majority is politically wrong-headed and counterproductive.

Finally – and maybe above all – the leaders of the broader democratic movement are aware that the president governs in a concrete political context in which the singular mission of the opposition party, dominated by right-wing extremists, isn’t simply to wreck the Obama presidency. It extends far beyond the occupant of the White House to every political, economic, and social right and gain secured over the past century – not to mention the institutional bases of the broad democratic movements, labor in the first place. The wholesale decimation of democratic rights, organizations, and institutions may seem an unlikely possibility to some, but leaders as well as activists of the broader movement are keenly aware that right-wing extremists, who are in the driver’s seat in half the states and show no hesitation to use power in ruthless ways when given the opportunity, are only one election away from gaining control of the one remaining branch of the federal government not now in their reckless, authoritarian hands.

None of this makes the president above criticism in the view of progressive movement leaders, but when they offer criticism it is contextualized and carefully calibrated. Its purpose isn’t to show up the president or bring him down. Or simply to be right without a thought as to how words and the way they are expressed educate or miseducate and mobilize or demobilize people. Its intent is to nudge, prod, and move President Obama, inch by inch if necessary, in a progressive direction. And we should never forget, as an astute trade union leader once reminded me, that a lot of people live on those inches.

Perhaps there is something that the left can learn from here.

Shouldn’t our political categories and analysis – not only as it applies to the president, but to political phenomena generally – be more open-ended and elastic to allow for contradictions, inconsistencies, indeterminacy,new experience, and, not least, human agency?

Shouldn’t we complicate our understanding of the process of social change and bid farewell to cut and dried schemes, pure forms, and pat answers?

Shouldn’t we – much like the broader democratic movement does – make the actual balance of class and social forces, the depth of political understanding and unity of millions, and what people (not just the left) are “ready to do” an indispensable frame for our politics and practice?

Shouldn’t we attach as much significance to the electoral and legislative arena as a major locus of power and necessary gateway to social change as the broader democratic movement (and perhaps even more so the right wing) does, even at this stage of struggle and level of political independence?

The point of this isn’t to water down the critical-analytical, organizing, or visionary-programmatic role of the left, but to develop a politics – strategy, tactics, demands, message, language, etc. – that can break the current political impasse (now more than 30 years long), unite broad cross-sections of people, and lift the country to higher ground where freedom and justice penetrate every aspect of life – probably not all at once, but in the course of a protracted mass, nonviolent struggle that draws strength from the formerly passive and backward sections of the American people.

Without such a reset, I suspect that too many on the left will continue to spend too much time bellyaching, talking only to each other, living in their own cocoon of struggle, and missing opportunities to join with others in broader campaigns for justice, equality, and freedom.

The politics of “opposition and outrage,” which too large a section of the left has turned into a refined art form over the past half century, is like a drug. It brings a momentary high, but later on leaves its practitioner feeling washed out and utterly frustrated. It may register some victories here and there, but it has no transforming potential.

What is to be done, someone, once asked long ago and then answered: Put an end to the past period. The left would do well to do the same, but that will only happen if we get rid of narrow, simplistic, schematic, and small-universe ideas – some of which have become nearly second nature to too many of us. And that can be easily done without sacrificing a morsel of our anti-capitalist perspective and goals – our freedom dreams.

Photo: President Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2015. White House photo/Pete Souza


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.