Barack Obama: Progressive? Or Master of Hype?

Mother Jones has published an interesting symposium called The Audacity of Hype.

Is Barack Obama exaggerating when he compares his campaign to the great progressive moments in US history? We asked Pat Buchanan, Naomi Klein, and 18 other thinkers that question.

Specifically Mother Jones asked for comments on an Obama passage about hope that includes the following statement:

That moment when we shed our fears and our doubts. When we don’t settle for what the cynics tell us we have to accept. Because cynicism is a sorry sort of wisdom. When we instead join arm in arm and decide we are going to remake this country, block by block, precinct by precinct, county by county, state by state. That’s what hope is.

Here is an edited version of the responses with a few rejoinders of my own.

Jabari Asim
Editor of The Crisis magazine

… Obama continues to walk that fine line with the skill and diplomacy that has defined his political career thus far and, in reasonably describing his campaign as a logical extension of the civil rights movement, continues to maintain admirable balance. It’s hard to imagine a perspective that doesn’t regard his pursuit of the presidency as the fruitful harvest of seeds sown in those marches, sit-ins, legal challenges, and strategic campaigns of not so long ago.

As a veteran of those marches, who essentially lost a career because of a radical commitment which was impolitic, I feel now that what we are seeing is the fruit of the affirmative action drive which in itself was a back-handed acknowledgement of the earlier movement. I see Barack as building on nuts and bolts governance initiatives while invoking the spirit of the civil rights effort.

Jennifer Baumgardner
Author, Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics

… He is relentlessly calibrating complicated positions about even more complex issues and balancing as carefully as possible on messages of change that aren’t, in fact, too changey. I don’t find this realpolitik disturbing, but I find the message of “hope” he conveys empty and even besides the point, especially as he proves in the general election to have exactly Hillary Clinton’s positions. Fortunately, having Clinton’s positions isn’t a bad thing for the country. It may not be a movement, but Obama’s campaign is at the very least movement—toward a commitment to the middle class, better health care options, and an incredibly reasonable and thoughtful man in the White House.

My guess is that unless Barack can condense his complex agenda into five or ten words — a chicken in every pot — he will be tabbed with a negative version of the above and relegated to the ranks of intellectual dreamers. Baumbardner has nailed the problem, not necessarily the analysis. For there is more Obama than policy-wonkishness.

Pat Buchanan

… This whole exercise testifies to what Lenin called “an infantile disorder” of the American left. Give it a rest.

This begs the question. The American left is a trifle infantile but how many are there who could be called “the American left”? What we have is an amorphous mass without the sort of identities the pundits like to play with. By appealing to hope and civility, Barack is reaching out to anyone out there, not the American left, whatever that is. When his intellect fails, Pat flees to code word hyperbole.

Eleanor Clift
Author, Founding Sisters and the 19th Amendment

Better left to others to make the comparison, but I think it’s valid. We have to ask ourselves how reform is made. It takes acts of courage by countless unsung people to collectively create the conditions for a leader to take hold. Cultural change of this magnitude doesn’t occur until millions of people come to a consensus that it is needed, and it’s not about race or ethnicity. The excesses of the last eight years have brought us to the point where the voters have had enough. …

The most sensible response so far.

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Author, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood

Folding on FISA certainly doesn’t put you in a great progressive tradition. But pushing efforts to ameliorate the wealth gap might. It’s really up to Obama to determine whether or not he’s exaggerating. He is a politician, and thus prone to political rhetoric. I say that as one of his supporters, and charges of Kool-Aid imbibing aside, I think most of us know that too. If Obama goes forth and really reorients the country away from anti-intellectualism, fake patriotism, and craven powermongering toward a path of honest debate, muscular patriotism, and simple common sense, then he will be right in claiming the best of the progressive tradition. If not then it’ll just be rhetoric. It’s really up to him.

Equally sensible.

Robert Dallek
Author, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power

I find the question impossible to answer. How can we possibly know at this point what Obama’s campaign means? Is it the equivalent of some of the great progressive events of the past you cite? To answer would be to get way ahead of ourselves. First he has to win, and then we will see what he accomplishes. I certainly hope he is successful, but I don’t want to predict what his achievements will be.

Three in a row.

Debra Dickerson
Author, The End of Blackness

… His nearness to the presidency is an amazing, wondrous thing, but America won’t be much different afterward, blasphemous as that sounds.

Methinks Debra is right, but I hope she is wrong. Oddly the issue will not be Barack, but the rest of the election. If this really is a Democratic landslide year, then Barack gets what David Wilhelm has correctly called a 65 percent presidency. He could then do what he says he wants to do and that would amount to a definitive change in the direction of the country.

Harold Evans
Author, The American Century

… Obama has rhetoric to match Bryan’s, but while the statements are gratifying, even glorious, they are not all well-enough defined yet to constitute anything comparable to the great progressive movements that gave us our present.

I hesitate to wonder whether Mr. Evans has read Barack Obama’s positions. He does in fact have a totality of position papers which, taken together, do amount to a progressive agenda, one that compares well with the Progressive Platform of 1912.

John Judis

I think Obama has run a brilliant campaign, but not necessarily a “great progressive” one. Purely in policy terms, he is running a center-left campaign similar, say, to Jimmy Carter in 1976 and far less bold than, say, Bill Clinton in 1992. …

This is ironical because if the results of Obama’s campaign are like those of the Carter and Clinton campaigns, then we will truly be at the end of history. In other words all that is left is tinkering with a structure that is bigger than all of us. I do not believe we are at the end of history and I fo sense that Barack does not want and will not bring a micro presidency of the Carter sort or a cave-to-Wall Street presidency like that of Clinton, the results of which can be seen in today’s financial collapse. We never know what any President will do, I give Barack the chance for greatness, a term I have not seen in these comments.

Michael Kazin
Author, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan

… Obama’s current attempt to shed his image as a gun-controlling opponent of capital punishment is just the latest demonstration that even the most admirable politicians are captives of the majorities they need to win. They move when movements move them.

And when their specifics move the movement. It goes both ways. The Obama Blog is a remarkable indication of ebb and flow.

Michael Kinsley

… We are struggling to figure out our role in a world where we matter less and less. The bill is coming due for a generation of staggering fiscal irresponsibility——mostly attributable to Republican public officials, but the American people have been their enablers. The second industrial revolution, which has brought us computers and miracle drugs, has also apparently ended the era when “a rising tide lifts all boats.” That delinking of prosperity and equality will make us a different kind of country, and we have no idea what, if anything, to do about that. And meanwhile yet another bill is finally coming due for the first industrial revolution, in the form of global warming, the energy shortage, and so on, —even as that revolution spreads to new parts of the world.

As a “world man,” who has excited and inspired people all over the globe without actually doing anything yet, Obama has the potential to weave these issues together and prepare people for the “change” they think they want—much of which they won’t like when they see it close-up. The test of a leader is whether he or she can lead people somewhere they don’t want to go. Whether Obama can do that, or even wants to, remains unclear. In short, whether this is an important historical moment or just another election is up to Barack Obama.

Most salient so far.

Naomi Klein
Author, The Shock Doctrine

The campaign’s most radical demand, even if unstated, is the idea of electing Obama himself. It is Obama—and not his plans for the presidency—that is the ultimate expression of the “movement.”

We have forgotten the kind of risk and work it takes to build transformative mass movements, and so settle for iconography instead. That said, he’d better win.

My own recollection of the civil rights movement is that we did not much consider risk or work. We just did it. I smile at the degree of risk that was involved because, at the time, it seemed mild compared to the realities we knew existed — simple things like being together, knowing we were right, believing we would overcome.

Michael Lind
Fellow, New American Foundation

… The next reform era is more likely to emphasize common concerns, public efforts, and the national good, like the progressive era and the New Deal era, than individual emancipation … While his campaign did not create the next-era wave, Sen. Obama has proven his skills in besting his rival surfers on the Democratic team. Whether or not Obama rides the wave to victory in November, the tsunami will proceed, and the reactionary right will be no more able to reverse its course than King Canute was able to command the tide to retreat.

This is, along with Kinsley’s, a comment worth considering. There is in Obama an element of group goal-orientation. And I have not seen this distinction developed.

Glenn Loury
Professor of economics, Brown University

Is Barack Hussein Obama a transformative American leader on questions of race? Not when compared to Lyndon Baines Johnson.

A shocking degree of historical amnesia/ignorance has been revealed in the gushing press commentary on Obama’s “race” speech. It seems to me that people are confusing something that is akin to a cult of personality with an actual political movement that is informed by a comprehensive ideological vision and that is capable of making lasting institutional reforms. …

Loury’s is the longest of the Mother Jones comments but these initial remarks are what caught my eye. This joins the debate we will need to have at some point. The question of LBJ’s stewardship and whether we can see his implementation of key legislation as a great advance or not. We have, since LBJ, become a prison society with post-Kerner Report division that is largely unimproved. We shall see if, and whether, an Obama stewardship can be as significant as that of a Johnson. Loury’s of the cult word is not a promising sign of objective analysis.

Clarence Page

So far Obama has not spelled out a progressive platform that compares to the earth-moving ideologies of great progressive movement. Lately he’s been backpedaling away from the left and back toward the wobbly middle to expand his support among independent swing voters. Nevertheless, as an African American old enough to have drunk from “colored” water fountains in the South, I am convinced that the election of a progressively minded black—or, if you prefer, biracial—president will mark the capstone of what the civil rights movement was all about. Whether Obama wins or not, he already has changed our national mindset about racial possibilities, revitalized the image and energy of liberal politics, and improved our nation’s image around the world. That’s not small potatoes.


Chris Rabb
Blogger, Afro-Netizen

Obama’s candidacy is not a movement, no matter how historic and unique it may be. It is a fascinating and noteworthy social phenomenon, which is not the same as a movement….

Oddly, no one has mentioned what may be the most important factor in this crazy election. The Obama ground operation. This is indeed a conscious effort to build a movement, on a scale that might bring envy to a Joe Hill or Saul Alinsky. If the election goes for Obama and there emerge hundreds of thousands of organizers who can transform their energies into building constituencies for specific legislative achievements, then I think much of the above will need substantial modification. Cyber-revolution with no drama might emerge as a catch phrase.

Rick Shenkman
Editor of History News Network and author, Just How Stupid Are We?

In time-honored fashion, I’ll answer this question with a question. My question is: What was the lesson of the civil rights movement? Was it that you can appeal to the conscience of America? That you have to mobilize activists by high-minded appeals to a cause? That you have to fight like hell for your rights because people in power do not make concessions just because you ask for them politely? That a leader can inspire people to action? Or that it helps immensely to have an archenemy, like Bull Connor?

My answer is: All of the above. Barack Obama comes across like a civil rights movement leader. His rhetoric inspires people the way Dr. King did. But he seems to be selective in his reading of the movement’s lessons. He seems to believe that appeals to reason are ALL that is necessary. The civil rights movement demonstrated that change also requires a good old-fashioned enemy who can be easily ridiculed, hardball tactics, and the willingness to exert pressure on the weak points of the people in power who are blocking change. Politics is not a tea party.

I get the point, but there is one thing that is more important than all the above. A LAW that is defective. The Civil Rights Movement was essentially a movement to rectify an illegality. Without that, enemies or no, it would have blustered and failed.

Roger Wilkins
Professor of history, George Mason University

… a superb black president could significantly lessen even more the hold the past has on us, and that presidency would forever be regarded as one of the brightest lights in our national life.


Patricia Williams
Professor of law, Columbia University

I don’t think it is at all an exaggeration to say that Barack Obama’s campaign is rooted in and furthers that kind of embracing progressive American story. The Bush administration has brought us to a very dangerous precipice: The world has been divided into good guys and bad guys, the due process promised in the Bill of Rights has been all but suspended by executive whimsy, and the use of torture has gained a stature in American discourse that it has not had since the good old days of public lynchings. Yet for a dangerous few years, public opposition was nonexistent in the face of manipulations like “you’re with us or against us.” Color-coded fearmongering silenced some of us; cynicism and a feeling of helplessness paralyzed others.

Barack Obama has done more to cut through the Orwellian garble of that frozen moment than any other public figure. He has given eloquent voice to the widespread unease at the course our government has pursued; he has done so with grace, without anger. And he has brought enough reasoned good sense back to the discussion that “diplomacy” is no longer a curse word.

If we are to pull back from the cliff’s edge to which George W. Bush has shepherded us, I think it will be because the most redemptive moments in American history have always been rooted in the deepest promise of the First Amendment. I mean not merely the reductive right of frat boys to yell epithets, but the profound commitment to the propagation of ideas about how we constitute ourselves as a nation; the profound power of imagined political possibility; the profound freedom to exchange thoughts without fear of punishment. From the Puritan jeremiads to the Gettysburg address, from Harriet Tubman to FDR’s fireside chats, from Abigail Adams to “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” our most interesting social transformations have always been given life by our most intelligent rhetoricians. Within that tradition, Barack Obama could be our Nelson Mandela—not a magician, but the page-turner to a more encompassing future for all.

This rivals Kinsley’s as the most salient comment and is certainly the best evocation of the positive impact of Obama. This could be a template for a very good stump speech.

Garry Wills
Author, What the Gospels Meant

It is true that Obama is facing a task of historic scale and difficulty, but he has not sufficiently identified it. The task is to restore a Constitution shredded by secrecy, illegal detention, and torture. The real question is whether he can convince the American people that these atrocities must be wiped out—and he has not begun to do that.

Well, according to Professor Williams, he has begun. That he can go farther and sharpen his message is obvious.

All told, this is really a wait and see reality, with too many imponderables to enable easy predictions or hasty verdicts.


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