The Slogan Was Meant To Be ‘Yes We Can’ Not ‘Yes He Can’
(Cross-posted at Winning Progressive)
A significant challenge facing the Obama Administration as it gears up for the 2012 re-election campaign is that the President is not positively defined in the minds of many voters. A look at the entire record of President Obama shows that he has been a pragmatist who, while far from perfect, has led our country through daunting times and achieved significant progressive victories in the face of intractable opposition. Yet far too many progressives see him as a compromiser, always ready to sell out progressive values, while many moderates see our President as a failure who has achieved very little. Neither of these views is accurate and, consistent with the slogan “Yes We Can,” we must all pitch in to help get out to the public an accurate portrayal of the Obama Administration, its successes, and the areas where improvement is needed.
Former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller recently addressed the ill-defined perception of the Obama Presidency in a recent column entitled “Fill in the Blanks.” In it, Mr. Keller identifies four reasons why, in many people’s eyes, the President has been defined by the circumstances around him rather than defining himself:
the intractable legacy bequeathed by George W. Bush; Republican resistance amounting to sabotage; the unrealistic expectations and inevitable disenchantment of some of the president’s supporters; and, to be sure, the man himself.
Each of these points has merit. President Bush handed President Obama the keys to a car that was firmly in the ditch and, after President Obama got the car out of the ditch, the GOP has done everything they can to push it back in. And there can be no dispute that the Obama Presidency has been far from perfect from a progressive perspective. For example, President Obama’s record on civil liberties has been highly problematic, some of his education policies troubling, the dive on the ozone air quality standards inexcusable, and the decision to focus on deficits over jobs earlier this year a mistake.
But Keller’s third point – “unrealistic expectations and inevitable disenchantment of some of the president’s supporters” – gets at a key issue – the failure of progressives to help define our President in a fair but positive light. While we have noted a number of disappointments above, the Obama Administration has also moved the progressive agenda forward more than any President since Johnson. Under President Obama’s leadership, we have passed historic health care reform legislation, repealed DADT and taken numerous other significant steps towards LGBT equality, enacted air quality standards that will save tens of thousands of lives, made significant investments in energy efficiency and renewable energies, passed significant reforms of the financial and credit card industries, created a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, kept the economy from sinking into a depression, held off radical Republicans who are hell-bent on destroying government as a tool for social good, and helped unseat tyrants in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. These are progressive victories that we should all be shouting from the rooftops.
Yet instead of focusing our efforts on highlighting these successes and attacking the conservative critics of those successes, far too many progressive activists focus almost all of their energy on attacking the President for compromises and disappointments. A few even go so far as to make the laughable claim that President Obama is no better than Bush.
The problem with this approach is that it means that voters – most of whom spend very little time thinking about politics – virtually never hear a positive message about President Obama or Democrats. The simple fact is that the President cannot do the work of defining his Administration alone given the intractable opposition from a well-funded and organized conservative movement and a media that largely echoes right-wing talking points or engages in “he-said, she-said” reporting that does little to educate its viewers and readers. That is why we progressives must be involved in helping to highlight the progressive successes of President Obama, challenging conservative attacks, and offering criticism of the Administration that is constructive rather than destructive.
The need for progressives to be actively involved in defining, supporting, and constructively critiquing President Obama has always been at the heart of Obama’s campaign and Presidency. It is why the campaign slogan in 2008 was “Yes We Can” rather than “Yes He Can.” As Obama explained in his Presidential campaign announcement speech back in 2007:
That is why this campaign can’t only be about me. It must be about us – it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy, and your advice – to push us forward when we’re doing right, and to let us know when we’re not. This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.
And it is a theme that President Obama returned to in a recent fiery speech to the Congressional Black Caucus :
The future rewards those who press on. (Applause.) With patient and firm determination, I am going to press on for jobs. (Applause.) I’m going to press on for equality. (Applause.) I’m going to press on for the sake of our children. (Applause.) I’m going to press on for the sake of all those families who are struggling right now. I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain. I am going to press on. (Applause.)
I expect all of you to march with me and press on. (Applause.) Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. (Applause.) Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do, CBC. (Applause.)
None of this means blind adherence to everything that President Obama does. A key part to advancing the progressive agenda is to constructively push back when the President or congressional Democrats make the wrong decision and to build the political pressure necessary to get them to do the right thing. But advancing the progressive agenda also requires being able to distinguish between one’s friends and enemies. And the record today is clear that the GOP is the political enemy of our progressive goals, while President Obama, for all of his faults, is the best friend that progressives have had in the White House in a long time. Let’s act accordingly and make sure that as we enter the 2012 election season, our rallying cry is still “Yes We Can.”