It’s not over …

Obama has FDR’s gifts, but can he restore the nation?

Photo illustration by Andrew Nilsen

About the author
Tom Hayden is a lifelong peace and human-rights activist, former California legislator, professor and author of more than 15 books. This piece was commissioned by the News & Review and shared with the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

The collapse of American finance capitalism, being an event beyond the control of Karl Rove and the Republican apparatus, may well be the decisive factor in electing Barack Obama president. Or so say the pundits. That analysis, however, underestimates the risks that lie ahead this final week and the qualities of Obama’s campaign that enable him to take advantage of this crisis.

Despite the biggest collapse in share values since 1929, the closeness of the election already suggests that a masked American racism is alive and well. The hidden racial factor is immeasurable, and the threats to Obama will increase as he nears the victory line. There will be nothing easy on Election Day, as polling places will surely be overwhelmed with voters.

If John McCain wins, yet another generation will learn the bitter lesson of our continuing prejudice. The neoconservatives will have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. The lines will be drawn. A larger Democratic Congress will try to counterbalance McCain, at best plunging the country straight into the 2012 confrontation.

But Obama has the edge.

He continues to break all fund-raising records, a bottom-up trend that began with the Internet-driven solicitations for and the Howard Dean campaign, estimated to be $230 million in 2003-2004.

Meanwhile, a silent army of Obama volunteers is preparing a historic get-out-the-vote campaign. Their effort is qualitatively different from past operations, which mostly consisted of out-of-state staffers occupying a handful of battleground arenas, ignoring local groups, treating voters like consumers and packing their bags the moment the election was over.

While the Obama campaign deploys paid staff, too, the difference is that they are judged by community-organizing standards, which means empowering neighborhood teams from the streets up, leaving a vast new resource in place after the election.

Obama’s story of rejecting a Wall Street career for community organizing in Chicago resonates now more than ever. He has introduced the model of community organizing not only as an alternative campaign model, but also as an alternative career model.

This new generation of Obama organizers will become the source of social activism for decades to come.

If Obama wins, November will be a turning point in the past decade’s struggle to make every vote count, and a culmination of voter-registration campaigns begun many years ago in the Deep South, where today it is possible that Obama will win actually one or two states. Voter turnout will swamp the polling places. Election chicanery is thriving again. It will be a brutal and contested day.

Third-party voters could still throw the election to McCain. The 2004 margins in close states are instructive: Kerry won Wisconsin by 0.38 percent, New Hampshire by 1.37 percent, Pennsylvania by 2.5 percent, and lost Iowa by 0.67 percent, New Mexico by 0.79 percent, Ohio by 2.11 percent and Nevada by 2.59 percent. Obama is bettering Kerry’s numbers in those states, but the race could tighten and boil down to third-party voters.

If there is an Obama victory, countless tears will flow among people carrying the deep post-traumatic stress disorder of our generation. To those now filled with hope and those allowing themselves to hope again, defeat might be unbearable.

On the day after, the work will begin anew for those who really want change in America.

The current debate over Wall Street contains a populist streak but little progressive content. The initial $750 billion bailout package—now climbing toward $2 trillion—was a gift to those responsible for the crisis, with only modest regulatory conditions attached. We are very far from the “Green New Deal” that some dream about. Congress has not suggested transferring funds from the Iraq war to energy conservation and renewables.

It is difficult to imagine waiting until late January for a progressive reworking of the Wall Street package. Immediately after the election, Congress is likely to go into special session with a president-elect among the sitting senators. Anti-war and environmental forces need to make themselves heard in the din of debate.

The paradox is that the time has come for economic democracy, just as its advocates have waned in influence and resources.

The stark fact is that the current bailout package will so strain the federal budget as to threaten the health-care and green-jobs agendas. Perversely, the good news is that the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other fronts will become increasingly difficult to fund as well.

The New Deal began slowly and gradually, with personal acts of belt-tightening. The most famous New Deal programs—the Wagner Act, Social Security, the Works Progress Administration—were formulated conceptually in the heat of subsequent struggle. When America turned leftward in a time of factory occupations and liberal congressional majorities, Franklin Roosevelt had the ability to devise pragmatic yet radical measures to restore stability by extending democratic rights.

Obama has Roosevelt’s gifts of oratory and pragmatism, but as yet there is little movement, and no threat on the streets, only a predictable sense of personal shock when Obama needs a public storm.

Unlike Roosevelt, Obama cannot implement a traditional Keynesian public-works program without an environmental underpinning, a green-jobs program that is just now being formulated. And unlike Roosevelt, Obama cannot prime the pump with more expenditures on war. Iraq alone costs $11 billion per month that could be invested in domestic priorities.

The imperial liberal model, branded these days as “muscular internationalism,” would send Green Berets around the world but deny investments in green jobs at home. The old assumption that imperial intervention abroad is good for the working class at home is faith-based at best. The Lyndon Johnson fantasy of being able to afford “guns and butter” is in the dustbin.

The contradiction in the Obama campaign is that he generates a new historical force from below while relying on a small coterie of inside advisers at the top, individuals who are trained to believe in military intervention and market-based economics.

The Obama campaign method, which has generated a superior ground game, is about mobilizing voters, not about generating policy input from the bottom up into the debates among the circle of advisers.

While Obama’s 300 national-security advisers include many critics of the Iraq debacle, none would describe themselves as anti-interventionist, not to mention anti-imperialist. Nor are any of his economic advisers proposing to scrap or fundamentally revise the corporate-based protocols of the World Trade Organization or the North American Free Trade Agreement. They cautiously avoid attacking Sarah Palin on global warming and polar-bear extinction, while dropping their opposition to offshore drilling and nuclear power as too much “baggage.” These counselors could be the newest version of The Best and Brightest.

Obama showed he could dissent from this Democratic orthodoxy when he stood against the Iraq war when it truly was out of fashion. He may prove willing to reconsider whether Afghanistan and Pakistan are winnable wars in any moral or strategic sense, or whether they are driven too much by the Democratic fear of looking weak. He may be forced, like Roosevelt, toward Keynesian economics with green amendments from Al Gore.

But to revise his course in a progressive direction, he will need a movement, clear and passionate, on the inside and outside, transcending the quibbling cliques that proclaim themselves national progressive organizations. He will have to allow the movement that elected him an effective, independent voice in setting the policy agenda.

The Republican fallback strategy will be to foil Obama by mobilizing an extreme countermovement against his agenda. Only a stronger social movement, empowered by rising expectations, might save his presidency from the strain of military, economic and political stalemates and deliver on the promise of real change in America.