Having known Dick Flacks and his wife Mickey since Ann Arbor in the early Sixties, I am struck by the similarities between the angry disenchantment among progressives and radicals towards John and Robert Kennedy in those days and the rising hostility towards Barack Obama today.
It’s worth knowing that the young SNCC activists generally felt that Martin Luther King was a moderate sell-out and that the Kennedy brothers were part of an unholy political alliance with Southern Dixiecrats against the civil rights movement. That’s not how history turned out, of course.
Here’s what Flacks has to say:
"I don’t think that criticisms of Obama’s capacities as a leader, his interest in reaching out to business elites and moderate Republicans have much justification. I would like to see the case made that in fact his leadership[ has been exceptional in certain respects. He led the effort to pass health care (and compromised to do it in much the way that FDR did to get social security passed ) He got a stimulus passed (again compromised). Financial reform, the auto company takeover, DADT –all come to mind as achievements against considerable odds. In foreign policy, I think he should be credited with helping to destroy the neo-conservative version of empire that seemed so dominant five years ago. I don’t think liberal critics are willing to understand that Obama’s pragmatic, strategic, and consensus oriented leadership style might well be a better way for him to govern than the outspoken, bold confrontational posture they claim to want. And I really despise the ‘betrayal’ line. He has betrayed less in terms of principle than did FDR (who sacrificed African American interests to pass social security and the Wagner Act), Truman, whose loyalty program helped institute McCarthyism, Kennedy who ramped up the nuclear arms race, LBJ—Vietnam, and Clinton who abolished ‘welfare as we know it’. The lesson of history for progressives in the US and everywhere else in the world is NOT EVER to count on national leaders to lead by principle and moral concern. ON the other hand, a left that hopes to achieve practical policy has to figure out how to use the promises and rhetoric of national leaders as leverage. And that means figuring out how to be critical without destroying the legitimacy of leaders whose promises offer hope for the people."
Flacks hardly can be described as an Obama apologist. He supports a presidential primary challenge by someone like the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka, not to defeat Obama but to keep the voices and pressures from the disenfranchised alive as a counterweight to the pressures on Obama from the right. Here’s what else Flacks writes:
"The Obamans think they can win the presidential election next year because the GOP candidate will be patently awful and independents and even some Republicans will prefer him. Maybe so—but this begs the question—what about congress? If the working people who are being abandoned by the president’s political direction—the public workers being laid off in droves, the huge numbers of young people of every educational level who are under or unemployed, the millions of homeowners underwater, the hundreds of thousands whose necessary services are being cut, are demoralized because no one is addressing their needs, rights and interests, we will end up with an even worse Congress than we now have. Obama’s pragmatism leads him to various devil’s bargains. Instead of impatiently dismissing the anxieties and challenges coming from the left, he needs to address them—and we need him to do so."