The ghost of the 2008 candidate Barack Obama haunted Netroots Nation 2012 in Providence, Rhode Island. He hovered over every panel — at least the 10 or so panels I attended — and pervaded the general assemblies and closing session in which Van Jones gave the final pitch for progressives not to give up.
Obama’s re-election campaign provided a short video in the closing session featuring the President addressing the conference. It was an acknowledgment that he still owed a debt to progressive bloggers and would desperately need them again.
But as we watched Obama’s short recitation of ambiguous accomplishments, carefully avoiding the most contentious failures, along with the standard caveat that there was still much more to be done, you could feel the tension in the huge hall.
There were many there who still regard themselves as loyal. But the extraordinary thing about the video was how the mixed audience reaction showed how far Mr. Obama has fallen from grace. It’s not just among the suspiciously growing group of those who now claim “I told you so,” but among those who admit they were openly hopeful four years ago that he might actually reverse the atrocities of the previous four years. They thought he understood — or was smart and honest enough to figure out — what needed to be done and was prepared to lead the effort with courage and vision. Many feel he’s shown neither, so Mr. Obama will never again be their champion.
Given the tension over how much effort progressives will make to promote Mr. Obama’s reelection, the folks at NN12 chose well when they selected Van Jones to give the closing address Saturday night. Jones was an early victim of this President’s unwillingness to protect his own allies when under attack. It was a clear signal of Obama’s tendency to trade away friends and principles to mollify rather than confront the right wing crazies that Jones sees as destroying the country. And yet despite having been betrayed, Jones remains overtly loyal, forgiving and willing to make the best argument he can for why we should all try to take the hill one more time, even though our generals and their strategic objectives are not worthy of our sacrifice.
It’s not easy to make that pitch, to concede the leader’s weaknesses and still encourage others to follow. But Jones probably did as well as one can under the circumstance. The argument is not complicated. First, you describe the alternative, the enemy, in terms that most in your audience will recognize as frightful or evil. But you have to be careful to identify an enemy that folks don’t identify with Mr. Obama.
You can’t, for example, identify the enemy as the corrupting influence of corporate power and money or ideological/ regulatory capture, lest you implicate at least half the Democratic Party and the White House you’re defending. You have to be careful how you attack the evils of letting millions remain unemployed and watching record numbers fall into poverty, lose their homes, lose their insurance and lose their dreams; you can’t remind people you’ve failed on that. The speech has to navigate a minefield of disappointments, compromised principles, tepid efforts and embarrassing results that are too often denied.
So Jones told us the enemy is the Tea Party, or more broadly, the right wing crazies in the other party, and why not? Who in that audience would defend a group so misinformed, conned and manipulated by corporate billionaires and secret fronts that fund them and whose agenda is so appalling. Few there will dispute the Tea Party/crazies would, if they took over Congress and the White House, function as a mindless wrecking crew, dismantling every worthwhile government program enacted over the last 75 years by “we the people” to form “a more perfect union.” Even the most cynical can see the dangers.
We “have to beat them,” Jones exhorted, and his audience agreed and cheered. But of course, that still leaves us disconnected from the President’s re-election. Jones needed a way to silence those who feel angry, disillusioned, betrayed. If you’ve ever seen Jones in one of these settings, you know he’s a master of ridicule, complete with facial expressions and gestures that belittle those he’s taking down. They’re all a bunch of whiners, their fee fees are hurt, they’re just selfish or naive or silly or immature. Suck it up, ya’ll, get over it, and get in line, because the enemy are barbarians.
But you can’t just do that; you can’t ignore the gulf between what supporters hoped and expected, what they were told or led to believe by Obama himself, and what he’s done. This audience knows the history; you can’t fool all of them again. So the rhetorical trick is to say, in effect, “well, nobody’s perfect, and this was really hard; what did you think?”
So after uniting to slay the Tea Party barbarians in November, the progressives’ second mission is “to hold this President accountable.” That’s it. After they fight the trench warfare necessary to get Democrats and Mr. Obama elected to the last electoral campaign he’ll ever enter, somehow they’re supposed to “hold him accountable.”
At this point, Jones was a bit vague about how that could happen after the election; he changed the subject. He closed by reminding folks about the so-called “budget cliff” and how a lot of important things could go down in December during the lame duck session. Now the twin mission became (1) win in November, then (2) get ready to fight hard in December.
We weren’t told how what we’re trying to achieve in November, other than “beat the Tea Party,” will ensure that the Democrats and this White House don’t then turn around and throw granny off the “cliff” in December through some “grand” and immensely stupid “bargain” with the deficit frauds.
Still, it was a good speech, just the thing for a crowd that needed to be picked up and told they can still make a difference and their efforts were still needed. Most everyone cheered. They could go home a bit more energized than before.
But on Sunday morning, I’m struggling to make any sense of what we were told. I’m all in for beating back the barbarians — we should always beat back the barbarians, no matter what’s happening with the Presidency – but after that, I didn’t hear a path towards fixing anything else.