Public Comment

Commentary: Why Progressives Should Embrace Obama

By Thomas Long
Friday January 18, 2008

Appealing as Barack Obama’s politics of dialogue and inclusivity may be to the broader electorate, his non-confrontational rhetoric is troubling to some on the Left—people who are accustomed to having to do battle with corporate America for the reforms that will bring about economic and social justice. People like me. 

A prominent spokesperson for this disquiet is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. In a Dec. 17 column, Krugman labels Obama’s approach naïve, arguing that “[a]nyone who thinks the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world.”  

These are serious concerns that I have also heard from some of my progressive friends. But I don’t share them. 

Progressives know that there is one overriding reason corporations exert disproportionate influence in the political process. To get elected, candidates need to advertise profusely, and to pay for those ads, candidates need bucketloads of corporate money. Nothing about this lamentable system will change in the 2008 elections, which means that virtually every member of Congress will owe his or her position in some degree to the corporations and scions of business who funded their campaigns.  

Unless and until we enact (and the Supreme Court upholds) true campaign finance reform, corporations are going to have an important seat at the table for every significant economic reform that a Democratic president proposes. Is it naïve to acknowledge this fact and to express willingness to have a reasoned discussion with affected business interests? Hardly. 

Given the likelihood that the Senate will not have a filibuster-proof 60 Democrats—let alone progressive Democrats—we have a better chance of gaining the needed Republican and moderate Democratic votes if our president refrains from inflammatory rhetoric. 

In our broken campaign finance system, I have learned not to expect any more from a Democratic president and Congress than decent compromise in the direction of progressive reforms. Still, alone among the Democratic candidates, Obama gives me hope for something better. 

Drawing on the difficult life lessons he has learned as the son of a black man from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, and learning from his experience as a community organizer in poor communities in Chicago, Obama has a keen sense of social justice. The power of Obama’s oratory comes not just from his delivery but from the depth and thoughtfulness of his words and the conviction behind them. (Just as one example, read his recent “Call to Serve” speech. ) 

Having read Obama’s autobiography, listened to many of his speeches, and studied his positions on the issues, I have allowed myself to hope that Obama’s words will inspire Americans of all persuasions to focus less on self-interest and more on our common interest in creating a just society. I even have hope that, for the issues that really matter, Obama will convince enough members of Congress to risk alienating their corporate contributors (after respectfully listening to them) and to dare to pursue the reforms we need for the long-term health of our nation. 

But, in voting for Obama and his call for civil political discourse, wouldn’t we be squandering a rising anti-corporate populist tide? I don’t think so. Frankly, economic conditions are (fortunately) not sufficiently bad for enough Americans to elect a firebrand progressive president and a take-no-prisoners Congress. Although the economy could deteriorate significantly in the next 10 months, we do not appear headed into the type of devastating economic depression that freed FDR from the need to worry about the politically weakened corporate sector derailing his progressive reforms.  

In this economic climate, John Edwards’ heated rhetoric about fighting corporate greed—as comfortable as it may sound to many progressives—is doomed to failure in the general election. In the face of relentless Republican general election ads decrying “class warfare,” Edwards’ message will not win over sufficient independent voters. Nor will it help that Edwards’ fiery rhetoric does not square with his moderate voting record as a senator. 

I have focused on domestic politics thus far, but I believe that the promise of an Obama presidency shines brightest in the international arena. Our nation’s standing among reasonable people around the globe has never been lower. In the last seven years, the Bush administration debacles have only reinforced our reputation throughout much of the developing world as clueless neo-colonialists.  

Obama would be an American president the likes of which the world has never seen: He has extended family in Kenya leading hard-scrabble lives; and, as a child, he lived for several years in modest circumstances in predominantly Muslim Indonesia. With such roots in the Third World, Obama has the capacity to understand in personal terms the issues faced by developing nations and to steer a more compassionate foreign policy. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is arguably the most important foreign policy challenge of our time, and Obama is uniquely equipped to understand and defuse the forces that are fueling this dynamic. Obama’s willingness to engage in a dialogue even with leaders whose views we find abhorrent is exactly the right antidote to the arrogant, hubris-driven Bush foreign policy that has swelled the ranks of our enemies and only served to further undermine our safety and security. 

Americans are weary of politicians whose themes are driven by polling and focus groups. Obama seems to be the opposite—a candidate whose commitment to social and economic justice is a core conviction forged from life experience. Yes, Obama will foster a civil political dialogue, but he shows no signs of abandoning his fundamental progressive convictions.  


Albany resident Thomas Long was a consumer attorney for the Utility Reform Network (TURN), an advocacy group, for many years, and now is an attorney for the city and county of San Francisco. The opinions expressed here are his own.