Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Obama's Roots

Rick Perlstein is a journalist and historian whose books Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America and Before The Storm:  Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of America are essential reading for an understanding of modern American political history.  Rick has given me permission to post his recent op-ed, originally published in the New York Daily News. 

Unions Clamor, Obama Cowers

By Rick Perlstein, April 17, 2011

You've seen them: Ordinary white Americans from Wisconsin or Indiana, protest signs aimed at treasonous politicians.

No, not the Tea Partyers, though that description fits them, too. I write of the ones on the left, the thousands petitioning their governors against budget cuts and the slashing of union rights.

But while John Boehner has declared "no daylight" between himself and the Tea Party, one wag joked that President Obama had more to say about whether the Chicago Bears would get into the Super Bowl than the union protests in Wisconsin.

His silence has liberals baffled. The Wisconsin protesters' demands - a focus on jobs; preservation of collective bargaining; resistance to cuts in social services - poll well among the general public. So why are Democrats leaving this political energy on the table?

Historically, grass-roots movements have been an extraordinary resource for Presidents seeking to move history in a new direction. The ability to place oneself at the head of a protest - while also directing its unruly energies - has been a perquisite for successful presidential leadership.

One of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's responses to the Great Depression was to give workers the right to collectively bargain. However, some found their unions' umbrella organization, the American Federation of Labor, too timid. So at a 1935 labor conclave, John Lewis, the leader of the insurgents, strode across the podium to punch the leader of the old guard in the nose, an act that would lead to the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which turned labor into a social movement.

These days, conservatives who seek to discredit the Wisconsin protesters as hooligans point to the alleged damage their posters did to the state capitol's walls. In 1937, CIO strikers in Flint kept GM from producing all but 125 cars in February of 1937. Now that was unruly.

But unlike Obama, FDR supported the strikers, directing GM to negotiate with the union.

Eighteen steelworkers were killed in one of the violent labor conflicts that followed; FDR backed away from the CIO and its militant tactics. Be that as it may, his original intervention on the side of the masses - combined with his savvy in distancing himself from their excesses - paid dividends to the Democratic Party.
In Wisconsin, there have been no such excesses on the protestors' side. And yet Obama has kept his distance.

Lyndon Johnson achieved a trick similar to FDR's: In 1964, he cast his lot with the outraged masses of the civil rights movement. That came with its share of political hardships, but Democrats stuck close enough to their guns to produce an African-American loyalty that remains steadfast to this day.

Nor is this just a strategy of the left. The Christian right entered national politics in the second half of the 1970s. The nation's preeminent conservative aspirant for the presidency, Ronald Reagan, had to decide whether to abjure or embrace this powerful new group.

He managed to do both. Every year, he addressed the "March for Life" - but only by telephone, lest he be seen in a photo with zealots. Right-wing social movements, in fact, were an enormous pain in his presidential derrière, but Reagan was far too wise to betray that publicly.

Obama is the opposite. The demands of liberal social movements seem to annoy him terribly - when he deigns to actually acknowledge them.

This is a curious stance for a leader who has put the semiotics of social movements at the center of his appeal. And maybe, for his reelection, it will work again.

But if he wants to truly change America, he has to master a crucial precedent: That avoiding unprecedented outbursts of mass mobilization on his side of the ideological divide is not a smart option.


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