By Marjorie Cohn and Jeanne Mirer
President Obama declared in his victory address on election night, “Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated . . . We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” Those were powerful words. But they must be followed with action.
When he thanked his campaign workers, the former community organizer spoke emotionally from the heart. He ran an incredible grassroots campaign, which must now be turned into a movement to work with Occupy and other progressive groups to effect real change.
Glenn Greenwald warned in The Guardian that progressives are bound to be disappointed again in Obama because we will be under pressure to conform when our demand that he not agree to cut Social Security or Medicare as part of a “grand bargain” does not succeed.
But recall that in 1940, the great labor leader A. Philip Randolph prevailed upon FDR to improve the conditions of blacks and workers. The President responded, “I agree with everything you have said. Now make me do it.”
It is up to us to make Obama do it. How we get the President to do the right things are the challenges we face. What we do know is that those who mobilized to defeat Romney and Ryan should not demobilize. Those progressive constituencies that supported the President must come together to speak with one voice on key issues.
During the presidential election, many progressives were hesitant to vote for Barack Obama. They could not forget that he bailed out the huge banks with no accountability for the white-collar criminals who wreaked so much havoc on our economy while at the same time providing no relief for those whose homes were being foreclosed. Nor could they countenance Obama’s use of drones to summarily execute untold numbers of people, including many civilians. Progressives were upset that Obama failed to close Guantanamo, continuing to hold many people in indefinite detention without criminal charges. We were outraged that the President wanted to look forward and not hold any of those who authorized and committed torture accountable. He neglected to mention poverty during the campaign, despite the fact that 42.6 million people live below the poverty line in the United States. Obama also deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants and continued the Bush policy of warrantless eavesdropping.
Before the election, Marjorie Cohn joined Daniel Ellsberg, Cornel West, Frances Fox Piven, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jim Hightower, Norman Solomon and Jeff Cohen in issuing a call to progressive voters who were conflicted to ensure that we make defeating Romney a priority: “If you live in a close state, defeat Romney and his right-wing policies by voting Obama/Biden. If you live in a state where the outcome will be lopsided, you’re in a position to send a loud and clear vote of protest against Obama policies you oppose.”
We “consistently challenged Obama policies (on civil liberties, war and bloated military spending, environment, potential cuts to Social Security and Medicare, to name a few)” but we knew “that the policies of a Romney/Ryan administration would be worse on many issues and better on none. Consider Romney’s recent vow to ‘change course’ toward even more war-mongering in the Middle East. Or their profound differences on abortion rights and Supreme Court picks.”
The rest is history. President Obama was reelected handily, the only Democrat besides Franklin D. Roosevelt to win two terms with a majority of the popular vote. Women, gays, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, youth, and poor people understood the greater dangers of a Romney presidency. Obama prevailed in eight of the nine swing states. Although efforts to suppress the vote in communities of color in those swing states backfired, we know voter suppression is very real. Karl Rove & Co. used millions of dollars thanks to Citizens United to defeat Obama; luckily those dollars turned out to be ill-spent – on ads and not a comparable “ground game.”
Maureen Dowd put it well: “Last time, Obama lifted up the base with his message of hope and change; this time the base lifted up Obama with the hope he will change.” With Obama’s reelection, we must do more than hope that Obama will change. We have a unique opportunity to demand Obama move in a progressive direction.
The Affordable Care Act has survived so we can keep our kids on our health insurance policies until they turn 26, people with pre-existing conditions will not be denied insurance, and many who could not afford insurance before will be covered. But we must push for universal health care.
Romney cannot pack the Supreme Court with more radical right-wingers. But we should pressure Obama to appoint true progressives to the highest court in the land.
Romney cannot inflate military spending even more than the 20 percent of the U.S. budget it currently occupies. But we can demand a reduction in military spending, which adds significantly to the deficit, makes us no safer, and leeches money from education and health care.
Whereas Romney sees workers as expendable when it comes to maximizing profit, Obama must see to it that union rights are strengthened. He must also acknowledge the major role unions, union members and union households played in organizing the ground game and for his reelection. The President must commit himself to finding ways, including using his executive authority, to create good jobs.
Instead of Obama’s unprecedented targeting of whistleblowers, we must urge him to abandon the policies that led to the commission of war crimes that people like Julian Assange and Bradley Manning have exposed.
It is one thing to be pro-choice. Obama must push to make coverage for abortion available in all federal health insurance programs.
Obama took an important step when he issued an executive order preventing the deportation of young people who came to the United States before they were 16 and have lived here continuously for five years. In his second term, Obama should end discrimination and racial profiling by the Department of Homeland Security and the mass arrests and detentions of immigrants. He should also work on comprehensive immigration reform that includes a reasonable pathway to citizenship.
We must hold Obama to his pledge to protect Medicare and Social Security no matter how tempting it may be to weaken them in the impending deal to prevent us from going over the proverbial but not real “fiscal cliff.” Obama should also be pressured to stick to his self-proclaimed mandate to make the rich pay higher taxes.
To help prevent another economic meltdown, Obama ought to push for strong regulation, especially in the banking and financial sectors of the economy. A financial transactions tax on Wall Street, hedge funds, etc., targeted to job creation and infrastructure must be seriously considered.
The United States is a key player in the global economy. But the free trade regimes we have followed have only promoted growing inequality in this country and countries with whom we trade. We need fair trade that includes protections for workers, human rights and the environment.
In order to work seriously to protect our environment, Obama must push for a heavy tax on carbon emissions and major regulation of coal, oil and gas companies. He must demand transition to renewables before it is too late to stop the ravages of storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
During his first campaign, Obama pledged to immediately “let folks know” whether the products they consume contain genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) by proper labeling. He has not yet made good on that promise despite overwhelming public support for labeling GMO’s. Large corporations, including Monsanto, spent $50 million to defeat Proposition 37 in California, which would have required such labeling.
Although Obama has resisted Benjamin Netanyahu’s demands that the United States draw a red line to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability, Obama has imposed punishing sanctions that are devastating to the Iranian people, and not necessarily targeted to the nuclear program, while not saying a word about Israel’s nuclear arsenal. He must not pander to the right-wing Israeli government on Iran or sacrifice the rights of Palestinians.
After the election, Bill O’Reilly noted, “The white establishment is now the minority.” He was not talking about the white working class, but rather the white elite that has run our institutions since the country’s founding. O’Reilly continued, “And the voters, many of them, feel that this economic system is stacked against them, and they want stuff.” These comments betray his racism and racial stereotypes because it was clear that the people he claimed “wanted stuff” were people of color. We need to reaffirm that all people have a right to live in a society in which the economy serves their interests, and that people are entitled to basic human rights. As stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights include economic rights – the right to a decent job, to organize and join unions, to a good education and quality health care, adequate housing, and to economic security when people become aged or disabled.
While the President can always blame an obstructionist Congress for the need to “compromise,” the way he sets the terms of the debate will invariably determine the outcome.
We know that President Obama, like any president of the United States, faces immense pressures from Wall Street (bankers), the Chamber of Commerce, the Military Industrial (Congressional) Complex, the Prison Industrial Complex, and the insurance, fossil fuel and gun industries. All of these lobbies seek to promote their own interests – including the rights of capital over labor, criminalization of broad segments of society, reliance on carbon-based energy sources and wars to obtain them. They aim to profit from health care and privatize as much as possible, and to ensure that people do not believe they have any entitlements to health care or social security.
These are the many reasons to organize to make Obama do the right thing. But the burden is not only on the President. The burden is on us to organize the counter-pressure through all of the progressive constituencies. It is a challenge we must embrace.
Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and past president of the National Lawyers Guild. Jeanne Mirer, who practices labor and employment law in New York, is president of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.