This article originally appeared at With a Brooklyn Accent.
his week, Barack Obama took two actions which dramatized the different faces of his Presidency — declaring his support for charter schools as centers of innovation, and announcing his support of same-sex marriage.
It was hardly accidental these took place in the same week. The first, which enraged public school teachers and their supporters around the nation, appealed to the president’s longtime funding base among wealthy supporters in Wall Street and Silicon Valley who not only support privatization of public schools, but stand to benefit from such policies; and the second re-energized the grass roots constituency — labor, young people, women and communities of color — that had helped catapult the president into office in 2008.
They also left the Republicans boxed into a corner. The first announcement “stole their thunder” by appropriating and rebranding their own attacks on “big government” and public workers (something Bill Clinton had also been expert in); the second placed Republicans in the unenviable position of becoming typecast as exponents of bigotry, and losing the vote of independents, if they attacked the president’s position and appealed to their deeply religious core constituency.
Together, the president’s actions cemented my conviction that he was one of the most brilliant politicians I have seen in my lifetime, equaled only by Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and surpassing even his sometime rival Bill Clinton. Simultaneously assuring himself of support from some of the wealthiest people in the nation, while energizing a broad coalition of labor, people of color and globally minded , environmentally conscious youth, has been the hallmark of Barack Obama’s political genius since he first ran for the state legislature in Illinois. This strategy has not only left Republicans confused — it has encouraged them to appeal to the worst instincts of their core constituents, their racism and homophobia, thereby transforming Barack Obama into a symbol of human rights and civic decency who liberals and moderates have to support to be true to their core values.
As one of those progressives who supported Barack Obama in 2008 and who rallies to his defense every times he is attacked by bigots, I have a deep ambivalence toward the President’s program and real doubts about his legacy. Yes, he has successfully kept racist and xenophobic elements in the Republican party at bay, and has prevented them from imposing austerity policies that would have plunged the nation into a deep depression ( just look at Ireland, Greece and Spain to see what “austerity” has accomplished), but he has also continued the foreign policy of his Republican predecessors, deported more immigrants than George W. Bush did in either term, launched a campaign to privatize public education that was developed and vetted by his wealthiest supporters, and has failed to launch any initiatives to combat steadily growing poverty or shrink the prison industrial complex. The resulta: two of his core constituencies, organized labor and the Black community, are actually in a weaker position than they were when his presidency began and a disproportionate share of wealth and income continues to accrue to the top 1 percent of the population while the middle class shrinks and more people are driven into poverty.
This leaves progressives between a rock and a hard place. Given the bigotry, xenophobia, and depression-creating austerity policies emanating from the Republican party, many of us may find ourselves voting for President Obama as a way of staving off economic catastrophe and standing up for the rights and dignity of all people. But we will do so with little hope that our actions in the voting booth will stop the relentless privatization of public resources, the lowering of wages, the shrinking of the middle class, the erosion of our civil liberties or the continuation of the police repression, unjust drug war, and racial profiling that fuels the growth of the prison industrial complex.
The battle against growing inequality and the rule of the one percent must take place, primarily, in our streets, our schools, and our workplaces, in a grass roots movement that builds popular democracy one community, and one institution at a time. Voting is an important part of that struggle, but without huge grassroots mobilizations, politicians, the president among them, will have their actions held in check by their wealthy contributors
We can have no illusions about the scenario we face. The onus for creating “Change we can believe in” is now squarely upon us.