Guy Saperstein: The Time To Negotiate With Obama Is Now, Not After The Election

Guy SapersteinGuy Saperstein, a retired civil rights attorney who was listed as one of the Top 100 Lawyers In America, a major Democratic donor, part-owner of the Oakland A's and a past president of the Sierra Club Foundation, has a new piece at

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Guy Saperstein, a retired civil rights attorney who was listed as one of the Top 100 Lawyers In America, a major Democratic donor, part-owner of the Oakland A's and a past president of the Sierra Club Foundation, has a new piece at Alternet.org in which he states an important thesis: "What Obama's Willingness to Deal with the Right Means for Progressive Politics." And if you don't see why this is a problem, you're not paying attention:

Obama’s willingness to bargain away core progressive values of the Democratic Party in a deficit-reduction deal comes after his meltdown on a large range of issues dear to progressives: His unconditional support for Bush's Wall Street bailout; his escalation of the Afghanistan War; his acceptance of Bush-era limits on civil liberties; his shift from supporting the healthcare public option and opposing individual mandates during the 2008 campaign to subverting the public option and backing individual mandates in 2009; his extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich (in exchange for Republicans allowing an extension of unemployment benefits and aid to cash-strapped states); his withdrawal of strong EPA rules on clean air; his gratuitous attacks on “the professional Left.”

At times it has seemed that Obama went out of his way to attack progressives and undermine progressive programs in order to prove he was truly the post-partisan president he claimed to be. Indeed, as I and Andrew Sullivan have previously argued, the evidence is pretty conclusive that Obama has governed as a conservative.

So, the question for progressives is, “What do we do now?”

Obama supporters would answer that question by arguing that now is not the time to criticize the president because the alternative--electing a Republican--would be worse. Now is the time to mute criticism, because criticism can be embarrassing and dispiriting. Buck up, Dems, forget issues and actual performance, now is the time for cheerleaders, not critics. We can reconvene on the issues after Obama gets re-elected.

I guess you already know I'm not one of those people. I think that is truly the least strategic, most naive position you could possibly take. If you're a progressive, you're there to push the discussion to the left, not support candidates "no matter what." Waiting until after the election is much like negotiating with your cell phone carrier for a new phone after you've signed a contract - you no longer have any leverage. Guy agrees.

I think exactly the opposite is true. The only leverage progressives have on Obama is now, not later, not after the election. After the election, what is most likely is that Obama will return to his vision of himself as someone standing above politics, capable of making a “Grand Bargain” with Republicans, as a serious deficit hawk, as someone willing to put Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security on the chopping block before he demands more sacrifices from the rich and well-connected.

[...] Voters also will be bombarded by $3 billion of negative advertising, which is not likely to increase voting enthusiasm; indeed, much of the Republican advertising will be designed to suppress voting. Low enthusiasm elections mean one thing, low turnout and in low-turnout elections, what do you do? You activate the base voters because base voters are more likely to vote than occasional voters.

Obama already has figured this out, which is why his State of the Union address was so populist and progressive (if you leave out the 15 minutes or so of pure pandering to the military). He is smart enough to realize that he can’t get re-elected talking austerity and cuts to important social programs that many people, especially his base, like. He may want to make a Grand Bargain with Republicans, but he can’t do that now, not with an election looming.

Obama has few progressive achievements to offer his base, but he knows he’s a skilled wordsmith of populist rhetoric. And this is what gives progressives power now that they haven’t had for 3-plus years: Obama needs progressives; he especially needs progressives to vote; he is reaching out to us; he is beginning to talk our talk.

So, now is the time to make demands on him, to push him to make promises and commitments--as MoveOn did recently by demanding that he promise to veto any extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich and by protests of inaction about mortgage relief at Obama for America sites. This is also what Bill McKibben’s 350.org did on the Keystone Pipeline, putting pressure on the president to reverse a State Department decision to permit the pipeline from Canada and thereby reaching out to the environmental community, which heretofore he had largely ignored, but which he needs in November.

Between now and the election, we need to take the lead from actions like McKibben’s and MoveOn and drive Obama as far to the progressive side of politics as possible, because if we don’t, once he is freed of having to run for re-election again, the Grand Bargain will be back on the table and it will take 20 years, or more, to reverse the damage. Ironically, by pushing Obama to take more populist positions, we will be helping to make him more electable, so there is no conflict between pushing him on issues and re-electing him.

The progressive vehicle for this pressure may now be in sight with plans by The 99% Spring to train 100,000 people in nonviolent direct action April 9 to 15 to push a progressive agenda about foreclosure relief, student debt, protection of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, job creation, poverty, pollution, wealth inequality and the roll-back of tax cuts for the rich. Let us hope this potentially game-changing force puts its allegiance squarely behind real change, not protecting the president, or any other politician.

I don't think he goes far enough. We need a progressive version of Grover Norquist's "no tax increases" pledge. Every single Democrat running for Congress needs to sign a pledge that he or she will not cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, and we should apply those standards every bit as stringently as Pope Grover does.

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