Naomi Klein on Obama
Klein speaks about Obama and the intellectual and political integrity of the progressive movement
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome back to the next part of our series of interviews with Naomi Klein. Hi, Naomi.
NAOMI KLEIN, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Hi.
JAY: At the media reform conference in Minneapolis, you gave a speech which created a certain number of ripples. Let me play a part of the speech for you.
KLEIN: What will the people who helped win his historic victory ask of Obama now? I hope that we, that you, will demand that he earn the incredible trust that he has been given, because the hard truth is this: Obama may have the energy and the anger and the networks of the antiwar vote, but he does not have a plan to get us out of Iraq. What he has is a plan to downsize the occupation of Iraq, not to end it. He may have the very real rage at the income inequality that has opened up in this country and around the world, but I am sad to say that he does not have a real plan to close that gap. And he may have the incredible, inspiring idealism of young environmentalists who are terrified about the future of this planet, but he does not have a green agenda that is a match to our climate crisis.
JAY: Is the progressive movement in the United States telling the hard truth?
KLEIN: I don’t think there is one progressive movement. But a huge amount of the progressive infrastructure, in terms of policy institutes, think tanks, magazines, blogs, is pretty much part of the Obama machine and is sort of suspending a fair bit of their critical thinking. They’re kind of in war mode, they’re in crisis mode, and it’s "We have to keep McCain out, and if we have to sacrifice some of our honesty and integrity to do that, then so be it. We’ll deal with it after the vote."
JAY: So the argument they give is McCain would be a dangerous presidency, a continuation of Bush, perhaps even more dangerous. He’s surrounded himself with people like James Woolsey and Randy Scheunemann, who are the hardcore of the hardcore in the neocon right. So first step is beat McCain, and then you can start your critique. Not now.
KLEIN: Look, it’s a persuasive argument. Whether or not McCain is crazier than Bush, just taken just strictly from a climate perspective, we have an emergency. We have a real crisis. So just continuing with more of the same isn’t status quo; it’s spiraling into climate chaos. I mean, we are at a turning point. There’s a really important climate conference coming up in 2009 in Copenhagen. It matters. It does matter.
JAY: How does the progressive movement deal with this, caught in a bind? Those people who are critical particularly say Obama’s foreign policy statements, which are becoming indistinguishable from McCain’s on many issues, at the same time in a real battle that polls are relatively tight. It could be another very close election. People are talking about even Nader’s candidacy might start to matter in a couple of states. Do the progressives, like, shut up for awhile, or try to make sure that people go into this with their eyes open?
KLEIN: Well, my concern is that you can’t shut up for a little while. It doesn’t really work that way. And look at the antiwar movement—where is it? There are really important exceptions, like Iraq Veterans Against the War, who are just decidedly independent and have such a clear position about immediate withdrawal. But then, if you look at an organization like MoveOn, this is an organization that built its huge membership—it wasn’t born out of the Iraq War, but it built its huge membership out of the opposition to the Iraq War and really was a huge part of the antiwar movement. And now it is a huge part of the Obama machine, and they are telling people to vote Obama, and they’re, you know, sending Obama bumper stickers. Well, Obama doesn’t have a plan to end the war in Iraq, and MoveOn should be telling their members that. And instead you have this conflation, because if MoveOn is saying "vote Obama" and MoveOn is the voice of the antiwar movement or one of the key voices of the antiwar movement, then it creates a great deal of confusion. So I don’t really blame Obama. You know, Obama’s actually quite clear: he does not have antiwar position, not in Afghanistan, not in Iraq; he wants to keep the Green Zone intact, you know, which is what I was talking about at the media reform conference. So I actually don’t think this is about Obama-bashing. It’s really about the intellectual integrity and the political integrity of progressives in our organizations, because if Obama is elected, then that is the most crucial point to apply pressure to this administration. So how do you actually segue from being a cheerleader to being a grassroots pressure? That’s a very hard trick.
JAY: And that’s what those who are Obama advocates in the progressive movement are saying: you build the independent movement later; you don’t do anything to jeopardize the candidacy now.
KLEIN: And the trick is that so much is lost in the early days. And I think my feeling is, actually, that it’s less about bashing Obama now. You know, I think it’s important to tell the truth, obviously, but I think there needs to be a post-election strategy that understands that it has to kick in immediately after the vote and that it can’t be building from scratch immediately after the vote. And what people need to remember is what happened after Clinton was elected in ’92, that everything was lost in the transition period. But in the period after Clinton was elected and before he was inaugurated, there were key meetings. He was under intense pressure from people like Bob Rubin. And this has all become public now, that there were meetings in this period. Clinton, like Obama, had run on an economic populist platform, saying he was going to reopen NAFTA, which had already been negotiated but hadn’t been implemented yet, that he was going to get environmental and labor standards—all the things we’re hearing from Obama. And there was, you know, a full-court press from Wall Street as soon as he was elected, and they said, "Look, we’ve got an economic crisis. You can’t do anything drastic. You actually need to impose austerity. You need to go in the opposite direction [inaudible] cut social programs." And Clinton was converted in this period. So the corporate funders of these campaigns know that they’re going to be applying pressure. They’re applying pressure now and are going to be applying pressure in that transition period, and there has to be a plan.
JAY: Who advises the president, especially the new president, who’s going to be the transition team, who’s going to be the new administration, is in that critical period you’re talking about, but it’s also now, the kind of team he’s building around himself. And you wrote a piece where you talked about one of his economic advisors, a guy by the name of Jason Furman. Can you talk a bit about him, and maybe what that represents of what an Obama presidency might look like, and why there may need to be some pressure applied during this period?
KLEIN: Jason Furman was appointed immediately. As soon as Hillary Clinton dropped out, conceded, endorsed Barack Obama, Jason Furman was appointed as the chief economic advisor for Obama. And this is very significant. Jason Furman is a young economist. I think he’s 37 years old. And he’s actually best known for his defenses of Wal-Mart. He’s written papers, taken on people like Barbara Ehrenreich, saying that Wal-Mart is actually a force of progressive good because of its low prices, and that people who are demanding a living wage for workers at Wal-Mart are actually doing more harm than good. This is his argument. And in terms of this dynamic, I mean, without going into that debate itself, I think it’s really striking, because a major base of support for Obama is the SEIU, is the Service Employees International Union, which has been taking on Wal-Mart, and trying to organize Wal-Mart workers, and getting shut down and so on, and has a very strong anti-Wal-Mart campaigns. So you can really see, when the more left-wing forces line up behind Obama in an uncritical way, you can just see how they’re taken for granted. I mean, to appoint Jason Furman as your chief economic advisor is a complete slap in the face to Andy Stern. But has Andy Stern spoken out against it? I haven’t heard it. So why is it? Because, you know, I’ve spoken to some of the hedge fund guys who are funding Obama, and they are more than willing to say that they think that his tax plan is a disaster, that it will make America uncompetitive. And if they’re willing to say that to me, I’m sure they’re saying it to Obama. So, you know, there is an incredible double standard, where the corporate funders for Obama, they make it very clear they have somewhere to go—it’s called the Republican Party—and that they want him to soften his policies. This is not a secret. And then what you have from the left is just "go, go, go."
JAY: And I guess the difficulty is, once you build your political alliances to get elected, it’s natural to govern for those same political alliances. It’s not like you’re going to go through some enormous catharsis, which is, I suppose, what everyone’s reading into it.
KLEIN: If you put it in a relationship context, if you’ve proven that you’re a doormat, you can pretty much expect to get stomped on.
JAY: Thank you for joining us. And if you’d like to see the entire series of interviews with Naomi Klein, you can see it all here in this episode. If you click this button; and if you click that button, you’ll see the word "donate." Thank you for joining us.
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