Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The next Obama

I've never given up the Dennis Kucinich campaign t-shirt I got when Dennis spoke in Cambridge back in '04. Actually I wear it for a night shirt because it's many sizes too large. And if you want to take that as a metaphor for Kucinich and the Presidency, go right ahead.
Whatever you say about Kucinich as a potential President--and many rude things have been said--as a candidate he has insisted on the need for transformative and collective--read: socialist--solutions to the intractable problems of capitalism, militarism, environmental degradation, income maldistribution, global exploitation, unavailable healthcare, and more. These are the urgent topics our politics should address, and Dennis is one of the few who does. No, Kucinich won't be the next Obama, but his brand of radical populism can help us think about some further directions our politics needs to take.

Imagine for a moment that Obama continues to reframe the national agenda as he has started to do--reinstating core values like scientific rationality and social justice and internationalism. Imagine that he manages to guide his party through modest successes in 2010, and gets reelected in 2012. Picture him working deliberately to build consensus for a variety of reforms: not just a greener energy policy and some form of national health insurance, but even a whiff of nuclear weapons reduction and  financial regulatory reform, along with fairer tax distribution to pay for these expensive but necessary measures. 

So according to this modestly optimistic scenario we will find ourselves, five or six years from now, just a few baby steps along the way to major structural changes. But we need to build new systems--and quick--before we destroy ourselves and our planet. At best we will have barely started back in a progressive direction  after the abysmal detours of previous administrations. Who will Obama be preparing to pass the torch to? I won't pretend to name names--few come to mind--but I will offer this prescription: that successor will need the political skills of Obama, combined with the collectivist sensibilities of a Kucinich, a Paul Wellstone, a Bernie Sanders. Obama may use his great pedagogical skills to lay the foundation for this transformation, but he won't achieve it in eight years even if he wants to--and it's not clear he wants to. He will need to be the precursor to someone bolder, who can really realign the systems of power. Right now there are only a handful of national figures who even seem to understand this goal. One of them needs to grow--fast--into the next Obama.


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