Today, Barack Obama takes the presidential oath of office, and with him we hope to see a huge change from the dangerous and incompetent years of George W. Bush. And while many people have great faith for this new administration, we must remember that Obama is still a politician, will still face enormous political and economic pressures from right-wingers, and is facing some of the worst national and international crises that the United States has ever faced.
But the answer to this is not to sit back and trust in Barack Obama to save us. The answer is to turn on the pressure from day one.
Optimistic activists believe that Obama is on their side. They believe that he wants to roll back the destruction from the Bush era, he wants to reform the country, and make it more democratic, free, and secure. But even optimists must accept the fact that Obama will face intense pressure from powerful people, organizations and movements that oppose those exact same goals. So optimistic activists should agree that we need to mobilize to make our demands known, so that Barack Obama has a visible, massive, popular mandate to give him the political will to take on these fights.
More cynical activists see Barack Obama as a politician who is both skilled and intelligent, but who does not represent that sweeping change that we all have been hoping for. These activists should agree that this means that we need to put popular pressure on Obama the politician to keep his promises, and force him to do the right thing.
We have already seen one example of people successfully pressuring Obama. On January 11, Obama began to back away from the promise to close the Guantánamo Bay prison camp, claiming that it was “difficult” and would “take some time”. Writers, activists, civil rights groups, and human rights organizations were outraged, and made their outrage known immediately. And on January 13, just two days later, the Obama transition team switched course, and announced that the president-elect would sign an executive order to close Guantánamo on his very first day in office.
Why did Obama change his tune? Because of popular pressure. Whether you believe in the goodness of Barack Obama or not, you have to see the importance of getting loud and staying loud in the name of justice.
If that doesn’t sway you, then please read these two examples, here and here, of similar situations from America’s past. Both are examples of former president Franklin Roosevelt refusing to take action (for better or for worse) until he was faced with enough political pressure to do so. The winning quote:
“In one situation, a group came to [President Roosevelt] urging specific actions in support of a cause in which they deeply believed. He replied: ‘I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.’”
It should be mentioned, of course, that the world we seek, where justice and freedom rule the land, is not solely a matter for governments and presidents. Many of our battles must be fought on local soil, against local politicians and corporations, against bigots and corruption. And some of goals are not achieved through conflict, but by helping our fellow man and working to build new institutions and more just, sustainable communities. Right now, without petitioning the new US president, you can work to feed hungry people in your hometown. Right now, you could be pushing your city government to spend more money on housing for the homeless. Right now, you could be fighting for livable wages for workers in sweatshops around the world. Right now, you could be pushing for products, practices, and policies that don’t degrade our environment. Right now, you could be standing up against sexism, racism, and homophobia in your family, school, or workplace.
And right now, you could be getting ready to push this president, push this nation, and push this world in new directions that are better for all people.
Activism is not a sprint; it’s a marathon run. We need people with strength, intelligence, passion, and endurance. Slapping an Obama bumper sticker on your car was just the first step of a long, long race, and we hope you’ll join us to the very end.
Party at the finish line, people.