The Age of Obama: What Went Wrong

by on April 4, 2012 · 27 comments

in American Empire, Civil Rights, Economy, Election, Popular

Van Jones reflects on his time in – and out of – the White House.

By Van Jones / YES! Magazine –RSN / April 3, 2012

The 2008 campaign was a campfire around which millions gathered. But after the election, it was nobody’s job or role to tend that campfire. The White House was focused on the minutiae of passing legislation, not on the magic of leading a movement. Obama For America did the best that it could, but the mass gatherings, the idealism, the expanded notions of American identity, the growing sense of a new national community, all of that disappeared.

It goes without saying that clear thinking and imaginative problem solving are easier in hindsight, away from the battlefield. I was in the White House for six months of 2009, and I was outside of it afterward. I had some of the above insights at the time, but many did not come to me in the middle of the drama and action. Most are the product of deeper reflection, which I was able to do only from a distance.

Nonetheless, the exercise of trying to sort out what might have been and trying to understand why nobody was able to make those things happen in real time has informed this book and shaped my arguments going forward.

Let me speak personally: looking back, I do not think those of us who believed in the agenda of change had to get beaten as badly as we were, after Obama was sworn in. We did not have to leave millions of once-inspired people feeling lost, deceived, and abandoned. We did not have to let our movement die down to the level that it did.

The simple truth is this: we overestimated our achievement in 2008, and we underestimated our opponents in 2009.

We did not lose because the backlashers got so loud. We lost because the rest of us got so quiet. Too many of us treated Obama’s inauguration as some kind of finish line, when we should have seen it as just the starting line. Too many of us sat down at the very moment when we should have stood up.

Among those who stayed active, too many of us (myself included) were in the suites when we should have been in the streets. Many “repositioned” our grassroots organizations to be “at the table” in order to “work with the administration.” Some of us (like me) took roles in the government. For a while at least, many were so enthralled with the idea of being a part of history that we forgot the courage, sacrifices, and risks that are sometimes required to make history.

That is hard, scary, and thankless work. It requires a willingness to walk with a White House when possible-and to walk boldly ahead of that same White House, when necessary. A few leaders were willing to play that role from the very beginning, but many more were not. Too many activists reverted to acting like either die-hard or disappointed fans of the president, not fighters for the people.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama went too far to the left to accommodate his liberal base. In my view, the liberal base went too far to the center to accommodate Obama. The conventional wisdom says that Obama relied on Congress too much. I say Obama relied on the people too little, and we tried to rely on him too much. Once it became obvious that he was committed to bipartisanship at all costs, even if it meant chasing an opposition party that was moving further to the right every day, progressives needed to reassess our strategies, defend our own interests, and go our own way. It took us way too long to internalize this lesson- and act upon it.

The independent movement for hope and change, which had been growing since 2003, was a goose that was laying golden eggs. But the bird could not be bossed. Caging it killed it. It died around conference tables in Washington, DC, long before the Tea Party got big enough to kick its carcass down the street.

The administration was naïve and hubristic enough to try to absorb and even direct the popular movement that had helped to elect the president. That was part of the problem. But the main problem was that the movement itself was naïve and enamored enough that it wanted to be absorbed and directed. Instead of marching on Washington, many of us longed to get marching orders from Washington. We so much wanted to be a part of something beautiful that we forgot how ugly and difficult political change can be. Somewhere along the line, a bottom-up, largely decentralized phenomenon found itself trying to function as a subcomponent of a national party apparatus. Despite the best intentions of practically everyone involved, the whole process wound up sucking the soul out of the movement.

As a result, when the backlash came, the hope-and-changers had no independent ground on which to stand and fight back. Grassroots activists had little independent ability to challenge the White House when it was wrong and, therefore, a dwindling capacity to defend it when it was right.

The Obama administration had the wrong theory of the movement, and the movement had the wrong theory of the presidency. In America, change comes when we have two kinds of leaders, not just one. We need a president who is willing to be pushed into doing the right thing, and we need independent leaders and movements that are willing to do the pushing. For a few years, Obama’s supporters expected the president to act like a movement leader, rather than a head of state.

The confusion was understandable: As a candidate, Obama performed many of the functions of a movement leader. He gave inspiring speeches, held massive rallies, and stirred our hearts. But when he became president, he could no longer play that role.

The expectation that he would or could arose from a fundamental misreading of U.S. history. After all, as head of state, President Lyndon Johnson did not lead the civil rights movement. That was the job of independent movement leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, and Fannie Lou Hamer. There were moments of conflict and cooperation between Johnson and leaders in the freedom struggle, but the alchemy of political power and people power is what resulted in the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As head of state, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not lead the labor movement. That was the job of independent union leaders. Again, the alchemy of political power and people power resulted in the New Deal. As head of state, Woodrow Wilson did not lead the fight to enfranchise women. That was the role of independent movement leaders, such as suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells. The alchemy of political power and people power resulted in women’s right to vote. As head of state, Abraham Lincoln did not lead the abolitionists. That was the job of independent movement leaders Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Harriet Tubman. The alchemy of political power and people power resulted in the emancipation of enslaved Africans. As head of state, Richard Nixon did not lead the environmental movement. That was the job of various environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, and other leaders, like those whom writer Rachel Carson inspired. Once again it was the alchemy of political power and people power that resulted in the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The biggest reason for our frustrations and failures is that we have not yet understood that both of these are necessary-and they are distinct. We already have our head of state who arguably is willing to be pushed. We do not yet have a strong enough independent movement to do the pushing. The bulk of this book makes the case for how and why we should build one.

Van Jones, a former contributing editor to YES! Magazine and a former adviser to President Obama, is the co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, a platform for bottom-up, people-powered innovations to help fix the US economy. He is also the co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change, and Green for All.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

RB April 4, 2012 at 10:51 am

What went wrong? Other than Sec. Clinton, he gets very little help from his Cabinet. Chu, Holder, Sebelius, Napolitano, and Biden have hurt him.


Prattle On, Boyo April 4, 2012 at 10:58 am

Wait. What? President Obama not living up to Candidate Obama is because the grassroots orgs didn’t hold his feet to the fire? Really? Funny, but President Obama had absolutely no trouble signing ACTA, NDAA, H.R. 347 and the EO greenlighting martial law during peacetime. Now he’s set to also sign the J.O.B.S. Act which will effectively null and void any Enron era laws, which, combined with the nullification of Glass Steagall, essentially guarantees the continued looting of Main Street by Wall Street. Obama is a dud and has proven to be every bit as big of a puppet for the oligarchy as Bush ever was.


James April 4, 2012 at 11:29 am

Nice self-serving analysis by an Obama apparatchik, trying to portray himself as having been naive rather than a sell out. A real self-analysis might have begun by admitting the fact that Obama is a whore for Wall Street, which was abundantly clear to all who had their eyes open even before he announced his cabinet first nominations. As a friend aptly put it, Obama’s real job was to ‘sell hot air and let the statute of limitations on actually holding any of the banksters accountable.’ Not only has he succeeded in a bang-up job on that account, but he has also single-handedly done more than any past president to codify the fascism behind the bankrupt neoliberal economics of BOTH wings of the Republi-crat party. There will be no real change through the electoral process, and a vote for the Democrats is a vote for insanity (doing same thing ad nauseum & expecting different results) and covert fascism as much as a vote for the Republicans is an overt vote for theocracy and fascism.

It is going to ‘take a revolution to make a solution,’ not more empty ‘hope and change’ rhetoric from the Dem’s chief co-opter #1, Van Jones.


Sunshine April 4, 2012 at 12:24 pm

I’m getting the book in hope of reading more about his “people power” ideas. I, for one, still believe I can make a difference.


Bud Pillsbury April 4, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Obama has no core.


Andy Cohen April 4, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Jones alluded to something that has struck me from the very beginning of Obama’s presidency: “The conventional wisdom is that Obama relied on Congress too much.”

My response: Yes he did, but not for the reasons you think he did. Barack Obama is a Constitutional scholar. He was a Constitutional Law professor. He understands better than most the way the Constitution is supposed to work. Ever since FDR, Congress has gotten lazy. It has shirked it’s responsibility as enumerated in the Constitution to create and enact laws because the Executive Branch has made it easy for them to do so.

Starting with FDR and much of the New Deal legislation, presidents have assumed the responsibility for originating their pet legislative projects in the White House and sending it to Congress to be marked up and passed. Why should Congress do its job when the White House insists on doing it for them?

Obama took the opposite approach: He said “Here’s the idea, here’s the framework that we’re looking at, now go do your job and write the law.” Some would say he abdicated his leadership role in doing so. But the truth is that the Executive Branch has been doing Congress’ job for far too long, and he felt the more sensible approach, and the best path to get a law that had broader agreement and acceptance was to let elected officials hash out the specifics instead of appointed cabinet members. After all, that’s what Congress is supposed to do.

Obama’s mistake was placing far too much faith in Congress’ ability to actually function the way it was supposed to. It is far too dysfunctional due to the toxic political environment that exists in Washington today, and the truth is that you can blame the Republicans who have taken a sharp right turn toward the extreme, especially in the last decade.


Bud Pillsbury April 4, 2012 at 2:04 pm

“Ultimately I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically-elected Congress,”
Barack Obama – April 4, 2012

Unprecedented?!? Has the Constitutional scholar and editor of the Harvard Law Review ever heard of Marbury v. Madison?

From wikipedia:
…is a landmark case in United States law and in the history of law worldwide. It formed the basis for the exercise of judicial review in the United States under Article III of the Constitution. It was also the first time in Western history a court invalidated a law by declaring it “unconstitutional”.[1][2] The landmark decision helped define the boundary between the constitutionally separate executive and judicial branches of the American form of government.


Andy Cohen April 4, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Delve deeper into what he was talking about: If this law gets struck down, it will happen in a 5-4 decision along strict party lines. That doesn’t say much for the credibility of the Supreme Court as an umpire of balls and strikes. If it were struck down in a 6-3 or a 7-2 decision, then you might have a point. But another 5-4 ruling in the wake of Bush v. Gore and Citizens United among others will only serve to further politicize the only branch of our government that is supposed to be entirely apolitical.


Bud Pillsbury April 4, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Ah I see. The Supreme Court is only political and lacks credibility when it rules against what the left wants. BTW, you forgot to mention the first 7-2 Supreme Court vote on Bush v Gore. You know, how Gore’s peeps tried to change the way ballots were counted – after the vote – in certain heavily democratic counties totally violated the Equal Protection Clause.


Andy Cohen April 4, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Bush v. Gore was a 5-4 party line vote. And it’s the fact that those votes are strictly party line that Obama and others are taking issue with.


Bud Pillsbury April 4, 2012 at 4:11 pm

5-4 on the remedy which the media turned into a narrative that people like yourself repeat again and again.


Shane Finneran April 4, 2012 at 3:07 pm

To be a defender of Obama, you have to ignore a handful of gaping holes in his record. Like how the Bush tax cuts would have expired on 12/31/2010 had they not been extended by a Democratic-controlled Congress in a “compromise with the GOP” brokered by Obama.

You have to give it to the guy: he keeps many of the 99% thinking he’s on their side, while the real results he delivers go to the top 1%, of which he is a member. There’s something almost Republican about the misdirection, no?


Andy Cohen April 4, 2012 at 3:41 pm

He made the mistake of assuming that Republicans in Congress were a reasonable lot that could be negotiated with. Give them something they really, REALLY want, and they’ll give us something we really, REALLY want. He assumed the best in people, which was just plain dumb. He discovered something we all knew a long time ago: There is NOTHING reasonable about today’s Republican Party. And I do believe that if he had that deal to make again, he would have simply let the Bush tax cuts expire like they were supposed to.

He tried to be a centrist, bi-partisan, reasonable leader. He was rebuffed and smacked away every time. Hopefully he learned his lesson (I think he has).

I think you’re being way too hard on the guy. He was never the hardcore liberal that many on the left expected him to be. And I can’t fault him for at least TRYING to be a grown up amongst a throng of petulant two year olds who think that compromise is tantamount to treason and punishable by lynching (and yes, I used that word deliberately). You can’t fault him for the environment he’s been forced to work with.


Shane Finneran April 4, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Is he really that dumb? He misjudged Republicans in Congress? What else does he do, try to french-kiss rattlesnakes?

I had Republicans in Congress figured out. Every one I talk politics to had Republicans in Congress figured out. My shih tzu had Republicans in Congress figured out. And I’m pretty sure Obama is much more savvy than all of us. If not, he definitely should not be president.

I think “bipartisanship” and “compromise with the GOP” are codewords for “sorry middle-class Americans, but money talks and you guys are S.O.L. on this!”


Andy Cohen April 4, 2012 at 4:29 pm

If you really believe that he’s “anti-middle class,” especially in light of what Republicans are doing, then I really don’t know what to tell you. That attitude is the equivalent of Birtherism on the right.

He tried to be the adult in the room. He tried to be the President of ALL of America, and not just big ‘D’ Democratic America. In order to actually govern effectively, you need a partner on the other side. He overestimated Republicans’ desire to actually govern responsibly. Maybe it was naive on his part, but you can’t really blame him for believing in the other side’s “better angels.” The simple fact is that we do have a two party system, regardless of how much we hate Republicans and Republican policies. And he has a responsibility to at least try to work within that system. He had to be able to say that he at least tried to work with Republicans in order to avoid looking like the overtly partisan the liars accuse him of being.

This way at least he has proof that it was the other guys who were completely unreasonable.


Bud Pillsbury April 4, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Not sure if this is true or not but Obama and his party controlled both houses of congress for his first two years in office.


Andy Cohen April 4, 2012 at 4:22 pm

You needed 60 votes in the Senate to do anything, and Dems only had that for a grand total of 14 days due to the Minnesota recount and Ted Kennedy’s illness and subsequent death. Repubs still were able to grind the Senate to a halt by filibustering EVERYTHING.


Bud Pillsbury April 4, 2012 at 4:29 pm

It takes 51 votes in the senate to pass a budget. That hasn’t occurred since April 29, 2009. Wonder why that is?


Frank Gormlie April 4, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Yet, in the end, you’d be crazy to vote for those homophobic, women-hating, racist, authoritarian, anti-worker /anti-union – yea, even fascist – Neanderthals running in the GOP corral. And if you go ahead and throw the switch metaphorically speaking for a Green or other minor candidate or figure not to vote at all, you are basically saying there’s no differences what so ever between the Dems and the Repubs. If you really believe that, look at the makeup of the Supreme Court and recall who nominated whom.

Yes, the people are – again – caught between Iraq and a hard place. We are better than Obama and we MUST oppose him on those issues and policies that help the 1%, the banks and corporate masters, and resist his government initiatives that cut back on our rights to dissent – at the same time – blocking the complete take-over of the country by those who wish to take us backwards a century.


Bud Pillsbury April 4, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Fascist like the NDAA Obama signed? Or fascist like uh killing American citizens abroad without due process? I don’t think Bush ever did anything like that. John Walker Lindh is proof.


Frank Gormlie April 4, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Hmmm, don’t forget the 100,000 to a million dead Iraqis that George W killed or had killed.


Frank Gormlie April 4, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Sometimes for lefties and progressives, it gets down to which party will kill the least people. And this is not the first time that progressives have had to make a choice like that. Plus, the Supreme Court is a beeg deal – in that it can decide reality for the rest of us – good and bad.

And – also very importantly, there is no mass-based progressive or left-wing party that has a chance to be part of the government through democratic elections.

So, what is a progressive to do? A progressive who cannot stomach the authoritarians and fascists in the GOP party who have pushed more moderates to the sideline and who have risen to the top, a progressive who is bent out of shape disgusted, disillusioned, disenchanted, feeling betryaed by and with Obama for his nonchalant violations of the Bill of Rights and due process, and for whom there is no true progressive or leftwing party?


Bud Pillsbury April 5, 2012 at 7:03 am

Don’t forget that the current vice president (Joe Biden) and secretary of state (Hillary!) voted for the Iraq war. So how many of the 100K – 1M iraqi deaths are they responsible for? And what about President Clinton’s record on iraq sanctions during his presidency – 350K-500K children dead?


Shane Finneran April 4, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Imagine if McCain would have won. What would have been different?
–Supreme Court deciding 7-2 instead of 5-4
–no gays in military

Did I miss anything?


JMW April 4, 2012 at 9:50 pm

I voted for O for three reasons: 1) He wasn’t Bush II as McCain was; 2) The guy can make a good speech; and 3) He is dark skinned; yeah, so the club is no longer restricted to pale skinned guys only.
Where his head or heart is, I can’t say, but his signature has already been given to legislation, “reluctantly” and accompanied by the PROMISE that he would never use it, that trashes the letter and spirit of portons of the Bill of Rights. Even if this promise should be the one he keeps, so what? What about the new boss, the next one? Would he bound by the promise of a former President? Wouldn’t think so.
The post’s author and some commenters use the defense that O was naive. What? Please. He’s the President. Naive? Oxymoron, anyone?
Exactly what O is besides the President, I don’t know, but I absolutely do not see him as a progressive leader, or, and much more of a problem, I don’t see him having my interests at heart. He may be the best shill ever for greed.


Christopher Dotson April 5, 2012 at 9:56 pm

Yes. But I would guess not having to watch queen Palin’s reign, and listening to her once adoring masses thriving about her throne, is not something you mind skipping out on.

Really? In retrospect you would rather her brand of Tea Party were RULING from on high? The first rule for fixing anything, especially a country so broken by little w’s 8 years playing with his bathtub toys, is to take small steps towards restabilizing the system as a whole. Thinking otherwise is near to insanity, or the lost patience of an instant gratification mentalite. Hard work for all of U.S. That is what Obama “promised”, along with the hardest choices we have ever known. We have had more problems, deeper problems to deal with than the prior three presidents combined, thanks to little w. We knew it would be a long slow haul to any form of recovery. At least we a not hemorrhage jobs . . . until the next induced crisis occurs. Wait! Looks like Michigan wants to take up where Wisconsin left off! Like he said, it is going to take time, and all of us working togethr, to turn w’s sinking boat around and make for the shallows so most of us can get to shore and survive.

All while the Dems remain sleeping, and the haters. . . . . Well? Nothing motivates like hate.


Christopher Dotson April 5, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Reply to Shane’s “Did I miss anything?”


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