Awakening to The Limits of the Obama Presidency

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There are folks who seem to keep hoping that Obama has a “progressive” side which we will all soon see emerge—reminiscent of the transformation of Clark Kent to Superman in the phone booth. Yet, I can’t help wondering if all that progressivism was merely projected upon the handsome Black man with the charming discourse style because folks were all feeling so desperate; we were are still seeking a political savior or messiah in Obama.

Well the last four years should have caused us to become much more sober and astute about what we can expect from the President of the U.S, in these times. Perhaps, it’s a moment for us to contend with the fact that there are multiple levels of political action and social struggle at work in this nation; and that each of us must decide where our strengths and skills are needed and where we can do the most good.  The only in-the-flesh savior we should be looking for is “we the people.”

From such a vantage point, we can then move to discern collectively what it is that we absolutely need to demand collectively from Washington. In the process, this also asks us to consider where do we each want to put our individual efforts. For me, issues close to my heart are universal health care, public education, and the amelioration of poverty. For others, it may be issues related to labor and the local or national economy. For others it might be immigration, the arts, women’s issues, or gay marriage.

Now, those who have been around the political block enough times already know that these issues are all interconnected—everywhere we are forced to contend with the interlocking forces of oppression that dehumanize and lead to policies and practices that both perpetuate and reproduce inequalities and social exclusion.

That said, it seems that one of the ways in which we must proceed is to create a greater public commitment to coalitional and collaborative relationships across communities and across the nation—a sort of multiple peoples’ congresses, if you will, that can communicate with one another on key issues and concerns, outside of the limited and ego driven arena of electoral politics.

Moreover, it seems that once we accept the limits of the presidency in its capacity to enact change that improves the quality of our lives, we can become more effective in putting people pressure on the presidency with respect to local, state, national, and international concerns.  Historically, it seems that most major changes of policy at the federal level, in the interest of the many, were made as a consequence of the enormous pressure put on the Washington by folks on the ground.

This said, with more and more people out of work, we should be working together to develop community cooperatives so unemployed people can put their “on hold” talents to work in ways that might make a difference in their own lives and the lives of our communities, while being both fed and housed. This requires us to shift our paradigm, from an individual sense of material responsibility to a collective sense of material responsibility for the greater good.  If the rich are able to enact an economic socialism (aka, corporate mergers and public bailouts and subsidies) to maximize individual profits for the few, why can’t those of us who are committed to social justice and genuine equality enact a different form of economic socialism in the interest of the many?

To do this would also require that those of us who do hold well-paying jobs be willing to channel a greater percentage of our resources to community organizations and political advocacy groups that are working together for an emancipatory agenda, steadfastly focused on building relationships, concrete strategies, and viable solutions for social change, at every level of society, so that we might begin to restore our lives, our communities, our country, and our world.

If we were to take this kind of an approach, we might become clearer about what we need now, in order to further a genuinely democratic citizenship. Through greater collective and organized interaction, we could better assess not whether Obama will become the progressive president we longed for, but rather how can we pressure whoever is in office (or campaigning for office) at the local, state, and federal level to be fully responsive to the needs of people, rather than responsive to the political pressure and private interests of those who continue to hold illegitimate wealth and power over our lives.

What I’m saying is that no U.S. president is going to come from on high and wave his/her magic wand and change our material and social conditions.  Only the will and movement of the people can finally make a dent in transforming the illegitimate power of the wealthy elite.  Of course, this means that we must be willing to not be bought off, for a few crumbs, but to redirect our frustration, rage, love, hope, and political will to enliven a political vision, soulfully anchored in integrity, humility, compassion, honesty, dignity, and a renewed sense of human solidarity.


About Antonia Darder

Antonia Darder is a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She is a longtime Puerto Rican activist-scholar involved in issue's relating to education, language, immigrant workers, and women's rights.
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