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Supporting Obama to BE the Obama You Voted For — Not the Inside-the-Beltway Pragmatist and Political Realist

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Has President Obama Abandoned You and His Own Vision of the Caring Society? Email  Article To a Friend View  Printable Version

On June 22, President Obama announced to senators the  pharmaceutical industry's promise to cut $80 billion in drug costs to  Medicare over a ten-year period. On August 7, it was revealed that in  exchange Obama had agreed to oppose congressional plans to seek  reductions in other drug costs, ensuring that the massive profits to  pharmaceutical companies and rising costs to Americans needing  prescription drugs would not be restrained by the health care plan he  would sign. Pragmatic manipulations have disempowered his supporters and  decreased Obama's popularity.

On June 22, President Obama announced to senators the pharmaceutical industry’s promise to cut $80 billion in drug costs to Medicare over a ten-year period. On August 7, it was revealed that in exchange Obama had agreed to oppose congressional plans to seek reductions in other drug costs, ensuring that the massive profits to pharmaceutical companies and rising costs to Americans needing prescription drugs would not be restrained by the health care plan he would sign. Pragmatic manipulations have disempowered his supporters and decreased Obama’s popularity.

Supporting Obama to BE the Obama You Voted For — Not the Inside-the-Beltway Pragmatist and Political Realist Whose Popularity is Steadily Declining

// Editorial by Rabbi Michael Lerner

My response to the question “Has Obama abandoned us?” is really “NO, the problem is that we have abandoned him by being too passive and expecting him to be who we want him to be without having created an ongoing movement that can push and support him in that direction.”

Implicit in most of Obama’s campaign talks about “change,” “sweeping out the power of the lobbyists and special interests from Washington, D.C.,” and “YES, WE CAN” (and a major factor in most people’s support for him) was his vision of a new way of being together: an alternative to the selfishness, materialism, and militarism that had led to a disastrous war in Iraq and the meltdown of the global economy. It was a vision of what we at Tikkun will label “the Caring Society.” Americans truly hunger for a world in which their lives have a higher meaning and purpose than accumulating money or power. If they thought it possible, they would gladly embrace a world based on love, generosity, peace, and social justice — a world in which people feel a strong responsibility to take care of each other. It is our task now to give President Obama the push he needs to feel that he can carry through and make the Caring Society vision that won him the presidency into a reality that guides his administration at every level. This editorial is in part our contribution to helping generate the kind of movement that could really support him.

I cannot remember a president who has inspired us spiritual progressives more than Barack Obama. (Check out our Core Vision at www.tikkun.org or our Spiritual Covenant with America at www.spiritualprogressives.org to see what we mean when we say we are spiritual progressives. Hint: you can be an atheist and still be a spiritual progressive.) We want to do everything we can to support Obama to have a successful presidency. Sure, we would be cautious anyway to critique the first elected African American president, because we are well aware of the racism that he continues to have to fight. And we’re doubly cautious because we see the absolute intransigence of the Republicans in Congress who seem oblivious to any form of rational discourse apart from a determination to make sure that Obama’s programs fail. And America’s elites are using their control of the media, the “influence” they’ve gathered through donations to candidates (in other countries they call these bribes), and their powerful array of lobbyists and think tanks to do all they can to stop any progressive aspect of legislation on health care, the environment, or economic recovery. Given all this, the last thing we wish to do is help sabotage the president.

And yet, we’ve seen President Obama take steps that we believe are sabotaging himself and undermining the huge public enthusiasm with which he started his presidency. We’ve seen him support policies that are likely to fail or that go against the spirit and sometimes even the substance of what he promised to stand for when elected.

He failed to embrace a single-payer health plan or to fight effectively for the ideas behind a public option for health care reform (see my editorial from the July/August 2009 issue, which you can read at http://www.tikkun.org/healthcare), and as a result we are likely to see enacted a very watered-down health care plan that will not provide health care for everyone and that will protect insurance companies’ profits and hence require additional financial burdens on the rest of us. He embraced a deal with the pharmaceutical companies to not use health care reform to push for dramatically lower prices for drugs beyond those agreed to by the drug companies. He supported a cap-and-trade bill even after it had become so laden with giveaways to polluters that environmental groups such as Greenpeace concluded that our planet would be better off were it totally defeated. In these critical bills, he has embraced an approach articulated by his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that in effect says, “get something passed through Congress, even if the substance of what is passed is arguably a step in the wrong direction.”

Obama was most popular when people thought he stood for a whole new kind of politics and would fight for that in Washington, D.C. He has lost popularity by following the advice of the Rahm Emanuel types and the inside-the-Beltway pundits and power brokers, who have convinced him that it is smart to be seen as a non-ideological pragmatist and centrist. Nobody seems to have warned him that he would face just as much opposition to severely compromised and intellectually incoherent health care bills like the ones that have emerged from the House and Senate as he would to a bill backing a single-payer plan, or that his plans would be labeled “socialized medicine” even when they are not as coherent or likely to be effective as the real versions of socialized medicine that work well in France, Israel, and many other countries.

He has faced just as fierce opposition from the banks for watered-down regulations as he would have faced had he done the more sensible thing: create and fund a national bank (to give interest-free loans for mortgages to expand home-ownership, to support small businesses, to finance college educations, and to promote other socially useful and/or community-enhancing projects). He should have allowed the “free market” to determine the fate of the banks. Instead he used our tax monies to provide them with interest-free trillions. These are the very banks that now oppose “government interference” — except when it’s interference to help them make huge multibillion-dollar profits such as those announced by Goldman Sachs investment brokers for the second quarter of 2009.

The sad truth is that he has left the little guys — the unemployed, the people whose mortgage loan rates increased to the point where they couldn’t afford them anymore, the people who listened to Bush’s calls for consumer spending and hence ran up credit card debt, and the homeless or the soon to be homeless — to fend for themselves in the capitalist marketplace. But the big guys were deemed “too big to fail,” so our tax monies got used to support them!

How did this happen? Was he lying to us in the way he presented himself in the 2008 elections? I don’t think so. Rather, we need to understand the conflict that rages inside him, because it is so completely understandable and completely like the conflicts that rage inside most of us. Barack Obama, like everyone else (including every one of us) has always had two contending voices inside himself: the one that truly wants a world of love, generosity, nonviolence, environmental sanity, and kindness, and the voice that tells him that this is impossible to achieve right now, so he must be “realistic.” This second voice warns him merely to fight for a kinder and gentler version of the current organization of our society, with its slavish subordination to the interests of the elites of wealth and power.

Obama won the Democratic nomination because he became one of the best articulators of the notion of a caring community, or what we have sometimes called a politics of meaning or a spiritual politics. But in the general election he resorted more to the voice of fear that told him he couldn’t win unless he reassured the elites of power that he wasn’t really going to change things that much and that he’d be loyal to the major assumptions that have dominated American politics in both parties, namely that the interests of the powerful are really in the best interests of everyone else. It was to that voice that Goldman Sachs and other investment firms’ and large banking interests’ executives resonated and donated.

The problem, of course, is that the old assumptions had brought America to the brink of self-destruction — and it was precisely for that reason that people were ready to have a Black man who talked about “change” and said “yes, we can” as president. But these same people, the American majority, have both voices in our heads, so it has not been hard for the American elites to win people back to the “no, you can’t” perspective that says, “forget about any major change, because everyone just cares about themselves, and so you really can’t expect any major changes now.” It would only be possible to stay attuned to our most hopeful part, the part that showed up in polls that indicated that 70 percent of Americans would be willing to pay higher taxes to ensure that all Americans are ensured adequate health care coverage, if the president were using his position to unequivocally rally our most hopeful selves.

Unfortunately, Obama is not giving out that message. Surrounded by inside-the-Beltway pragmatists and political realists, Obama has not been the champion of a new way of thinking since he took office, but instead has supported a “gentler” version of the old reality, hoping that he might be able to accomplish some real change if he “works within the system” the way it is.

People who momentarily thought something fundamentally different was possible — and in that context were willing to pay higher taxes — become increasingly disillusioned each time Obama takes that stance. The more pragmatic he becomes, the more his supporters begin to think that we are right back in the world in which self-interest rather than idealism is dominating our leaders’ logic, and therefore conclude that they themselves had better attend to their self-interests, lest they humiliate themselves by appearing to be “idealistic” and “utopian” at a time when the very person who inspired them to hope is doing his best to show how very interested he is in being perceived as pragmatic and “realistic.” And when that happens, then people ask themselves not “would we as a society be better off with a health care system that cares for everyone?” but rather “how will this new plan affect me personally, will it increase my costs or my taxes?”

The media make it seem that self-interest is all that anybody ever cares about, leading those who responded to the Obama vision of the Caring Society to feel foolish and even humiliated that they ever “fell for” the notion that things could be radically different. And then, as Obama’s popularity slips, the media rushes in to interpret that not as a sign that his pragmatism is not working, and that he should return to what made him so popular in 2008, but rather as proof that the American people are far more conservative than he thought so he needs to adjust his policies accordingly.

So it’s time for friends of Obama to tell him and his Democratic Party collaborators in the Congress that their strategy is like the emperor with no clothes. The pragmatic-realist strategy has been failing. It will continue to fail for two major reasons:

1. The global system of capitalism is in meltdown, and minor reforms cannot solve the problem. We can’t go back to the old assumptions that if people just have enough money to consume and consume and consume, everything will work fine — because that approach has led to a destruction of the environment that is bordering on catastrophic. And we can’t simply revive the capitalist marketplace, because that system is based on an ideology of selfishness and me-first-ism that at its worst erupts in the greedy deregulation that caused the 2008-2009 financial meltdown, but at its most efficient destroys our ecosystem even faster; undermines solidarity among workers (and hence makes it easier for the wealthy to increase their wealth at the expense of everyone else); and weakens our ability to achieve rational reform of our economy, our educational system, our health care system, and our legal system. Moreover, that same ethos of selfishness and materialism is at the root of the breakdown of human solidarity and caring in personal life — a breakdown which then produces a crisis in family life and an epidemic of loneliness and sense of alienation. This isolation makes people so desperate that they will grab onto anything that seems to offer stability and connection — even if it comes in the form of ultra-nationalistic militarism or right-wing religious fundamentalism.

2. Without the inspiration of believing that something really new can happen, many Obama supporters begin to doubt their own idealism and withdraw their energies from politics, saying to themselves, “OK, maybe I was too idealistic, so I’ll let Obama try it his way, and good luck to him.” And with that withdrawal, Obama lacks the only weapon he could possibly have to counter the power of the corporations, the insurance companies, the coal and energy companies, the big agro-business interests, the pharmaceuticals, the banks, and the investment firms: namely, a mobilized electorate committed to fighting for a different kind of reality. Without that, he has no way to resist the forces that push even his Democratic Congress to whittle away at the kinder and gentler reforms he wants to get through the Congress, until those reforms are barely worth fighting for. With his own base thus disempowered through his abandonment of the visionary aspects of his 2008 campaign, Congress gets to hear the voices mobilized by the Right even more than the voices of the majority that was originally inspired by Obama’s hopeful message.

There’s only one way to change this: to build a powerful movement that can give strength to the other voice that remains in Obama as it remains in most Americans — the voice that truly wants the Caring Society. It’s clear Obama is not going to go there without such a movement. Obama needs your support, and that’s what we at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives are trying to offer. It’s not the support of saying, “Right on, Obama, what you are doing is just what you should be doing.” No. Obama needs a different kind of support from us: support to articulate a coherent worldview and then to fight for it.

But please note that we at Tikkun don’t advocate making the worldview challenge in terms of rich vs. poor, a language that feels tired and boring to many, but instead in terms of love, responsibility to each other, caring for others, generosity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation. We set these ideals against the dominant ethos of me-first-ism, individualism, selfishness, and materialism. These are terms that speak across traditional Left-Right divides and potentially offer the most effective challenge to the dominant ideology.

Obama needs to go back to those who support him, visiting 100 major cities in the next hundred days of his presidency, to deliver the following message:

WHAT OBAMA SHOULD SAY

1. This is a moment in history when we must make the United States into what the American people have always fought to create here — the Caring Society.

When Americans spread out across the frontier and built their homes and barns, they didn’t do it as “rugged individualists” — they rightly valued their individual liberty, as do we today, but they also knew that they couldn’t do it alone. They knew they could count on people stopping their own work and coming from far and near to help them build a home, barn, or fence. America was possible because its people shared a real sense of caring for each other, even caring for strangers.

It’s only in the last thirty years that this kind of caring, which led Americans to sacrifice their lives to free Europe from the grip of Nazism in the 1940s, has been so thoroughly replaced by selfishness, a self-indulgent materialism, and the ethos of me-first-ism that is at the root of the global economic meltdown. As a result family ties have weakened, and the values so clearly articulated in the Bible — which calls upon us to not only “love our neighbor as ourselves” but also to “love the stranger, the Other” — have been undermined.

We need to get back to this fundamental value of caring for each other. America needs a New Bottom Line so that corporations, government policies, social institutions, and even personal behavior are judged rational, productive, or efficient not only to the extent that they maximize money and power (the Old Bottom Line), but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, and ethical and ecological sensitivity, as well as enhance our capacity to go beyond a utilitarian approach to nature so that we can respond with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of the universe.

In the twenty-first century, the goal of American policy must be to foster a new sense of responsibility for each other, an ethos of caring, and a commitment to building community to replace the materialism and selfishness that brought on the “Republican Depression,” from which we will struggle to recover for many years. But economic recovery cannot be achieved if we do not fundamentally change our bottom line in America and reject the values that have become so pervasive that they have corrupted our economic system, our corporations, our educational institutions, our media, and almost every other aspect of our society.

Our present-day materialism and selfishness stand in stark contrast to the sense of community that our country was built upon. Our sense of community was what enabled us to recover from the Great Depression; to claim victory in World War II; and to engender the cooperation among scientists that has led to important advances in technology, allowed for our exploration of space, and helped make us a center of creativity in the digital age. That sense of community and responsibility for each other has deep roots in our religious traditions, in the wisdom of humanists and ethicists, and in our sense of awe and wonder at the mystery and grandeur of the universe. It is to these traditional American and universal values that we must now return, and it is in their name that we must rebuild our society and our economy.

The time for the extremes of individualism and materialism is long past — it is only through this New Bottom Line and this responsibility for each other that America can flourish in the twenty-first century.┬áThe responsibility to care for each other is the core value that I, President Obama, will help bring back into the center of American life — but I need your help to do that, and I need you to make clear to your elected representatives that you expect them to stop listening to corporate lobbyists and start listening to the Americans on all sides of the political spectrum who actually want the Caring Society that we can build together.

2. The United States and other G-8 countries need a new approach to foreign policy based on the recognition that in the twenty-first century, our well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet, and hence that a strategy of generosity should replace the strategy of domination (such as by launching a domestic and global Marshall Plan to dedicate between 1 percent and 2 percent of our Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty years to once and for all eliminate domestic and global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care, as well as repair the global environment).

3. We need a national bank that can provide interest-free loans to help individuals and small businesses, in accordance with the biblical mandate. Just as a powerful public option in our health care system would have the effect of driving down the cost of health care (because more and more Americans would choose that option since it would provide care without handing huge profits to the insurance companies and health care profiteers), so too a national bank would provide competition for the bankers and force them to reduce their demand for obscene levels of profit. Bankers would soon have to lower the amount they charge us in interest rates for borrowing each other’s money.

4. We need to take immediate steps to put complete global nuclear disarmament on a fast track as a down payment on building global interdependence and demonstrating our seriousness about caring for others and the planet.

5. We need a complete change in global trade arrangements so that they no longer disadvantage poorer countries.

6. And we need to understand that our homeland security can only be achieved when we can isolate terrorists by showing how much the people of poorer countries are benefiting from our generosity (something that cannot be shown while we are occupying or bombing them). For that reason, we must shift our focus to rebuilding what we helped destroy in the economy of Iraq, and our strategy in Afghanistan must shift from its military focus to economic development in the course of the next three years, by which time we will have removed our forces from those countries completely, recognizing that we do not intend to be the policeman of the world but rather the source of generosity for the world. We will extend this generosity to socially responsible parties who serve the needs of the poor, not to authoritarian regimes, rich money-grabbers, or money-wasters.

7. Underlying all this is a worldview that gives priority to love, generosity, and caring as the central values that must shape domestic and foreign policy.┬áThis is what the American people elected me to do, and from now on these will be the criteria I will use in the legislation I support, the appointments I make to positions in the administration, and the budgets I propose. And I will use whatever influence I have with the American people to elect representatives in both parties who share these values. And I do mean both parties — because I intend to support primary challenges not just to Republicans, but also to seated elected Democratic representatives who are unwilling to support budgets and legislation that advance these ideas. I will be calling on ordinary Americans to run for public office whenever their elected representatives (whether city council members or representatives in Congress) do not share and support the programs that can make America the Caring Society that we all need it to be.

I know from my personal encounters with Obama that he actually shares those values, but until he consistently articulates them as the basis for a new politics and uses them as the criteria by which he encourages others to judge his and all other social policies, he will increasingly find himself falling back on the dominant paradigms of the past.

I don’t pretend it’ll be easy for Obama to re-energize people and reconnect them to the most hopeful parts of themselves. He has already made so many disheartening compromises that it will take a very large commitment on his part to rekindle people’s most hopeful yearnings. Yet the part of us that really wants a world of kindness, generosity, caring, love, nonviolence, social justice, environmental sanity, joy, creativity, increasing consciousness and awareness, and celebration of the universe can never be fully extinguished — it is an essential part of what human beings are. It is always reachable, though sometimes it takes a great deal of effort to overcome the other voice in all of us: the voice of fear, the voice that believes that we are the only ones who want something as idealistic and utopian as the Caring Society.

I know that you can immediately access a whole bunch of reasons why this can’t or should not happen; why we should just hope that Obama knows more than we; or why we should just cheer Obama on because he will save us in the end. In the interests of space, I’ve decided to answer all those objections on our website rather than here — so please go to www.tikkun.org/qa_sept09 to read that discussion. There I’ll explain how to deal with the Blue Dog Democrats and the spinelessness of many of Obama’s congressional liberals, how to understand why the Republicans who lost the 2008 election act like they won it and have a mandate while the Democrats who won it act as though they lost it and have to compromise on their own values, and why it’s not utopian or unrealistic to push Obama to engage in a full-scale campaign for a new way of thinking in American politics.

What Can YOU Do?

  • Go to http://www.spiritualprogressives.org and become a dues-paying member of the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP). The NSP will lead the forces supporting Obama to move in this direction. To do that, we need your financial support.
  • Set up a meeting with your elected representatives to present this perspective. If you become a member of the NSP, we’ll help you make contact with other members of the NSP in your geographical vicinity and congressional district so that you can go to congressional meetings with others who share your views.
  • Register and come to our Washington, D.C., conference to “Support Obama to BE the Obama We Voted For” June 11-14, 2010, at the Church of the Reformation and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, both on Capitol Hill. Details will appear at http://www.tikkun.org and in future issues of this magazine.
  • Create a monthly discussion group around the ideas in this editorial on “How Best to Support Obama” — on your campus, in your church or synagogue or mosque, with your civic organization, or in your neighborhood. Use articles in this and future issues of Tikkun to help stimulate the discussion.

Volunteer or become an intern (unfortunately unpaid) at Tikkun‘s office in beautiful Berkeley, California, here in the culturally rich, politically alive San Francisco Bay Area! We welcome not only students and recent grads, but also people who are mid-career and want to take a break from their normal routine, as well as retirees of any age. If you are open to being an intern or volunteer in our Berkeley office, go to www.tikkun.org/interns to learn more about the opportunities.

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March 26, 2010 at 9:08 pm

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