A dispatch for the “Arguing the World” blog at Dissent magazine.
Published in Dissent.
During the first year of the Obama administration, there was a historical anecdote that was exceedingly popular on the Left. It went something like this: amid the Great Depression, a prominent labor leader goes into the White House for a meeting with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The activist lays out an agenda of urgent changes that need to be enacted. Roosevelt responds, “You’ve convinced me. I would like to push forward these changes. Now go out and make me do it.”
Those who take the time to investigate this story conclude that it is almost certainly apocryphal. Its details shift from telling to telling—the activist in the story is often A. Philip Randolph, but sometimes another prominent figure such as John L. Lewis; the president is usually FDR, but sometimes LBJ, possibly in imagined conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr.
In any case, the tale hardly syncs with the historical record of presidential behavior. As Robert Borosage contended in an interview with The Nation’s Christopher Hayes, “The story is apocryphal. No president likes to be pressured. FDR loathed Huey Long and was often furious at the unions. Johnson was constantly trying to get King to call off the demonstrations—and his FBI bugged King. And yet King forced him to do what he would otherwise have been unable to do.”
I think one of the main takeaways from the now-famous rant of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in early August is this same idea: Presidents don’t like to be pressured. Gibbs derided progressive critics of the administration as deluded members of the “professional Left” who will only “be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.” Gibbs added, “They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”
Back when President Obama was first elected, I think the faux-FDR anecdote spread for the right reason. It conveyed the message that he would not do our work for us, that Obama would not be a progressive savior who would allow those organizing at the grassroots to hang up their hats and watch the victories roll in. Instead, creating change would take continued perseverance and agitation.
Yet, on another level, the story was overly consoling. Contrary to Frederick Douglass, it suggested that you could have rain without the thunder and lightning—or at least that the thunder and lightning would mostly be for show. It allowed those of us who had recently worked hard to get Obama elected to think that, even if we needed to protest or deride his compromised policies, our friend in the White House would covertly appreciate it. It allowed us to believe that, no matter what President Obama was actually doing, in his heart of hearts he represented us—that our criticism would not cost us our welcome in the halls of power. In other words, we wanted it both ways.
There are some indications that Obama wanted it both ways, too. He is reported to have told the FDR story himself on the campaign trail, and in a videotaped greeting to Netroots Nation in July he told the assembled activists to “keep making your voices heard, to keep holding me accountable, to keep up the fight.” Then again, his vision of what this involves apparently falls short of anything like holding protests. As Eric Stoner pointed out on Waging Nonviolence, President Obama was pretty flippant in dismissing those who were set to protest last September’s G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, arguing that
“…even during his days as a community organizer in Chicago he was never a big fan of mass protests.
With the clear intention of discouraging those who might join the looming demonstrations against the G-20, Obama explained that he was always a believer that “focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people’s lives is what really makes a difference; and that having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally is not really going to make much of a difference.””
Likewise, Christopher Hayes reports that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel would occasionally swing by meetings of progressive groups in Washington, DC, to proclaim that anyone who dared support campaigns against conservative Blue Dog Democrats was “fucking stupid.” The administration would clearly prefer that “keep up the fight” mean “criticize Republicans only.”
I remain plenty grateful that Obama is in the White House rather than John McCain, and I have no regrets about pitching in during the campaign. But the reality is that his administration does not truly represent those of us who believe in single payer health care, who demand a foreign policy that is a clean break not only from Bush’s legacy but also Clinton’s, or who support an economic agenda more resolute than mild Keynesianism.
Since there is no way President Obama will champion these things of his own accord, we are right to try to “make him” enact better policies—to bring whatever popular pressure possible to bear in persuading him to act in favor of organized people rather than organized money. We are wrong, however, to think that he will secretly like it.