Obama Faces Skepticism From The Left
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the impeachment trial of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich heats up with newly-released FBI tapes. We'll let you listen. And the magazine mavens tell us about their February issues. Are you shocked to discover they're all about love, Obama style? That's coming up.
But first, the Obama phenomenon. There is much excitement in the U.S. and around the world as Barack Obama begins his term in office. Close to two million people descended on Washington's National Mall to mark his inauguration. His nominees are largely cruising through confirmation. His first moves in office are winning plaudits around the world and the enthusiasm is reflected in polls, showing enviable approval ratings.
But as the president pushes his economic and foreign policy agenda, there are skeptics. And it's not just republicans and conservatives. Some liberals wonder whether the progressive ideals they have defended and campaigned for, when it was not always popular to do so, will now receive short shrift or be compromised away. We think it's important to keep a close eye on this ongoing debate, so we're going to have a series of conversations we call the Loyal Opposition. We're going to hold these discussions from time to time. Next week, we're going to hear from a roundtable of conservative and republican voices.
But today, we want to hear from a group of self-described progressives who are keeping a close, critical eye on the new Obama administration. I'm joined by syndicated columnist David Sirota in Denver. Glen Ford is the executive editor of the weekly online publication, Black Agenda Report. He joins us from Plainfield, New Jersey. Kathy Spillar is the executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and the executive editor of Ms. Magazine, which is published by the foundation. She joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Welcome to you all. Thanks so much for joining us.
Mr. GLEN FORD (Executive Editor, Black Agenda Report): Nice to be here.
Ms. KATHERINE SPILLAR (Vice President, Feminist Majority Foundation; Executive Editor, Ms. Magazine): Thank you.
MARTIN: I want to ask each of you to start - whether you are part of the enthusiasm around the Obama phenomenon. David Sirota?
Mr. DAVID SIROTA (Syndicated Columnist, Denver): I would consider myself certainly enthusiastic about Obama's presidency, and I wrote a column - my last column was about how I, like millions of people, were brought to tears by the inauguration. That said, I don't think there's a conflict between being enthusiastic about the window of opportunity that we have here, and the historic breakthrough of an African-American being elected to president and the need to pressure that president to make sure that he fulfills what was one of the most progressive campaign platforms in contemporary American history.
MARTIN: What are you most concerned about?
Mr. SIROTA: Well, I'm most concerned about his willingness to put his promises for bipartisanship over his promises - specific policy promises. There were two - there are two potentially conflicting sets of promises Obama made. The first set was I'm going to push a progressive agenda. He laid out a trillion dollars' worth of new spending on the campaign, expanding health care, a jobs program, et cetera, et cetera.
The second set of promises was I'm going to be bipartisan. I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that, essentially, the Republicans vote for and support my agenda. Now the problem is, is that if you push the policy agenda that is progressive in nature, it's most likely going to be the case that you're not going to get the majority of the Republican Party to support it. So what I'm concerned about is that Obama will choose the political aesthetic of bipartisanship over the policy promises that he made.
MARTIN: Kathy Spillar, Ms. Magazine got a lot of attention for a recent cover. It's an image of President Obama, a T-shirt under his dress shirt. It's obviously a takeoff of a famous poster, but it says - the T-shirt says - this is what a feminist looks like. So, I think - a lot of attention for this cover. A lot of people said, well, is Ms. Magazine going into the tank for Obama? So, I have to assume that Ms. and a lot of the folks who work with you are enthusiasts, but what are you concerned about?
Ms. SPILLAR: Well, we are very, very enthusiastic. We feel finally we have someone in the White House who understands women's equality issues and women's empowerment issues, and who ran on the strongest platform for women's rights of any major party in the United States in history, and we feel we have someone that we can work with to make up for a lot of lost ground, frankly, and begin to move forward again. And it's been a pretty good week - it's only been a week - for women here in the U.S. and around the world. President Obama repealed the Global Gag Rule, which was a Bush policy that hampered international family planning programs around the world. He has helped - he's backed, in Congresses past, the Lily Ledbetter bill to recover laws that strongly enforce against sex discrimination in pay, and this economic stimulus package - because working with his administration we were able to get added a lot of human infrastructure stimulus jobs that will be created in health care and childhood development programs and child care and education. More women's jobs will be created as opposed to just predominantly men's jobs, and the physical infrastructure that's always being talked about. Of course, we're disappointed in negotiations with Congress, given Republican opposition to many aspects of this package.
MARTIN: But that's a criticism of Congress. Is that a criticism of Obama or...?
Ms. SPILLAR: Well...
MARTIN: Is it your concern that he's so - as Glen, I'm sorry, as David was saying, are you so concerned that he's so eager to win Republican support for whatever reason, the cosmetics of it, the political message, that he will compromise issues of greatest concern to you?
Ms. SPILLAR: Well, we're disappointed. There's no question about that. We feel - we have - he's going to eventually address the issues that he's had to compromise on in this stimulus package, issues of family planning in this country, as a matter of fact, and the Medicaid program. But we realize that we've got to organize and mobilize - as we always have - because we are facing very strong opposition to many of the issues that we care the most deeply about within Congress, and we're going to have to help this president make real progress. And we are working very hard, and we'll speak out when we're disappointed or disagree.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with columnist David Sirota and magazine editors Kathy Spillar and Glen Ford. We're talking about the Obama administration and they are the loyal opposition. Glen Ford, on the continuum between loyal and opposition, where do you see yourself?
Mr. FORD: We've been critical of Barack Obama since way back in 2003 when we first realized that he was someone to watch. In general, we found him to be much more conservative, much more the corporate, neo-liberal than he is packaged to be. What upsets us most recently is his willingness to put Social Security and Medicare on the table - the equivalent of putting it on the chopping block - as part of his general overhaul of federal spending. We thought that we had fought the battle of social security during George Bush's first term, but apparently we have to fight it all over again this time with Barack Obama.
MARTIN: What - but...
Mr. FORD: We're also alarmed that he's postponing action on some very important progressive pieces of legislation. He's putting off consideration of the Employee Free Choice Act. He seems to be postponing comprehensive health care, and he's already postponed legislative action on what's called Cramdown legislation. That would be the - one of the few - one of the few bright lights for besieged homeowners facing foreclosure.
MARTIN: What would it do?
Mr. FORD: Cramdown would allow bankruptcy judges to adjust the terms of mortgage payees' payments.
MARTIN: Well, that leads me to a question. I understand what you're saying, but that leads me to - the question is, there are those who would argue that perfection is the enemy of the good. Is it really possible for him to satisfy your...
Mr. FORD: Oh, that's what I'm saying, that it sounds...
MARTIN: All of these objectives at once?
Mr. FORD: (Laughing) All at once - well, you know, actually the fear here is that Obama won't fight for core social programs. Again, to postpone sometimes is to postpone into nonexistence. I mean, those of us who have observed politics for a long time know that just pushing legislation back and back and back actually indicates that it's not a priority for you. So, that's why it is early in the administration, but there is cause for concern because of the behavior he's exhibited on the campaign trail.
Mr. FORD: And raising social security on his own initiative as a subject for cutting is something that you would not expect the progressive democrat to do on his own. But he did.
MARTIN: We only have a couple of more minutes in this segment. We're going to take a short break and come back to all of you. But before we do, David, what reaction do you get from readers when you raise these concerns?
Mr. SIROTA: There's two sets of reactions. There's the reaction - I would say the majority of the reaction is that people feel supportive of Obama, but also supportive of the idea that he is a president, and in our democracy presidents need to be pressured. There's a minority of folks who think that it's somehow disloyal - inappropriately disloyal - to Barack Obama in pushing him. Now, I disagree, obviously, with the minority there.
MARTIN: But what about that point of view? What about the question I asked of Glen, which is, what about the argument that perfection is the enemy of the good?
Mr. SIROTA: I...
MARTIN: You finally get somebody who's so far apart from George Bush, and now you're criticizing him. What do you - what do people say to that?
Mr. SIROTA: Well, I think you have to pick your battles, certainly. I think that there is a way to pressure without being counterproductive, in other words constructively pressure, and I think we have to remember what FDR said. You know, FDR, his famous line to, essentially progressives, was, look, you've convinced me on what you want me to do, now you have to go bring pressure on me. That's what has to happen right now. And there is a way - again, I want to stress - there's a way to do it in a constructive way where you're not hurting the good. The perfect isn't the enemy of the good. But the perfect pushes the good to be better.
MARTIN: Kathy, very briefly before we take a break, what about you?
Ms. SPILLAR: Oh, I couldn't agree more. In terms of the women's movement, nothing has ever been given to us, we've always had to organize and keep pushing forward, and we intend to take that role moving forward. The good news is, is that we have an administration in both Obama and Vice President Biden who understand these issues and are fundamentally committed to women's equality and full human rights. So, we have someone we can actually work with and hope for good progress.
MARTIN: We have to take a short break, but when we continue we're going to talk more about the issues the loyal opposition is concerned about, with Kathy Spillar, executive editor of Ms. Magazine and executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, Glen Ford, executive editor of the weekly online magazine Black Agenda Report, and syndicated columnist David Sirota. Please stay with us on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, in this week's Wisdom Watch former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin, the only woman to serve in that post. She shares her wisdom about breaking down political barriers. And the magazine mavens talk about love and what couples got their attention for their February issues.
But first, we continue our conversation about Barack Obama - I'm sorry, about President Barack Obama and the progressive political agenda. With us are syndicated columnist David Sirota, Glen Ford, executive editor of the weekly online magazine Black Agenda Report, and Kathy Spillar, executive editor of Ms. Magazine and the executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Welcome back, everybody.
Glen, I wanted to ask you. One of the things that was interesting to many people is that during the campaign, many of the pillars of the civil rights movement, people like John Lewis, supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. And many people questioned them about this, to the point where John Lewis actually had to switch his support during the campaign. I wonder, is there ever a racial dynamic when you are raising these concerns about Obama? Does anyone ever question the racial loyalty? They say you're cutting into his political capital and that you have an obligation as an African-American to support him. Does that ever factor into the dialog?
Mr. FORD: Oh, it happens all the time. And in fact, it's been at its most intense in this age of Obama. Our position at Black Agenda Report is, if there is a racial factor, and of course there is, it is that we will scrutinize Barack Obama much more intensely than others because black people have invested so much of their trust in him. Therefore, he requires more scrutiny.
MARTIN: Do you feel that he owes particular loyalty to the black community because he's black?
Mr. FORD: No, I don't, and I don't think that he has any particular loyalty to the black community. We do realize, however, that lots of black folk think so. We do not beat up on Barack Obama because we think we have a right to beat up on someone who is close to us. We treat him as we would any other politician. We've already characterized him on this show as another neo-liberal corporate politician. I think it's our obligation in fact to say so.
MARTIN: David, there's a saying that personnel is policy. Based on the personnel appointments that Barack Obama has made so far, do you believe that his desire for hope is indeed being translated into change - will be - can be?
Mr. SIROTA: It's hard to say. I'm conflicted about this because I do tend to believe that personnel is policy, and if you look at Barack Obama's personnel appointments, they've been, I think, less than inspiring. Most of them have been center-right politicians and operatives, some decidedly of the right. In his foreign policy team there is not - there's no Iraq war opponent. In his economic team he's put in place people who either had a hand in the current bailout or had a hand in deregulating the financial system.
That said, when I've written about this, some readers have said, well, you know, we have to trust the man at the top. And so, I do think that we have to withhold judgment on whether personnel is policy until we see what the policy is. One additional thought on that is that we are starting to see some of the policies. Some of the policies on the economic front are more progressive than you might expect from the nominees, some of the spending proposals in the stimulus bill. But some of the policies on the regulatory and the bailout front are more conservative than Barack Obama campaigned on. I mean, you've got Barack Obama's first move as president - let's not forget this - his first exercise of presidential power was a threat to veto any congressional bill that would have restricted taxpayer funds from continuing to flow to Wall Street, from restricting George Bush's bailout. That suggests that personnel, that is the more conservative economic team, is policy.
MARTIN: Kathy Spillar, what's your take on the appointments so far?
Ms. SPILLAR: Well, I would say by and large we're pleased. We'd have liked more women in the cabinet and in these high-level appointments, yes. We always are pushing for more because women are terribly underrepresented - still - in the United States Congress, less than 20 percent...
MARTIN: Sarah Palin is a woman.
Ms. SPILLAR: But if....
MARTIN: Forgive me, Sarah Palin's a woman.
Ms. SPILLAR: (Laughing) Well, she's not in this administration, and we have...
MARTIN: But I mean, but that's my question. Is the question women, or which women?
Ms. SPILLAR: Oh, it's feminist women, and he's done very extraordinary in that realm. We have strong feminists advising him, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and hopefully secretary of labor Hilda Solis. So, these are people who understand the need for a particular focus on women's equality issues, whether it's in the workplace - and especially as we tackle an economic recovery - or in foreign policy, that we focus on government's treatment of women and girls. The need to establish civil society, you have to have all citizens participating. So, we're very pleased. And we're hoping for even more appointments as he moves ahead into the next round and the next level. And we're advocating on behalf of more women and more feminists to be advisers. So, but do we want more? Of course, and we're going to keep pushing.
MARTIN: Glen Ford, what's your take on appointments? And what framework do you use to evaluate appointments? Do you - are you interested, as Kathy is, in the number of African-Americans per se? Or are you more interested in their politics?
Mr. FORD: Oh, we're interested in the appointments as they indicate policy, as they indicate folk who he's surrounding himself with, who we must assume are of some affinity of mind. We actually take politicians at face value and don't try to use psychobabble techniques to decipher their motives. If they surround themselves with the right, they - we think they're pretty comfortable with the right. And even the New York Times has characterized this administration as a center-right administration. We think that's accurate.
MARTIN: Glen, can I just ask you this? Do you think a candidate you really like could win?
Mr. FORD: I can't - no, of course not, but that doesn't mean that we'd constantly sit on the side and throw grenades. We believe that we give a good analysis of what a candidate's intentions are, what their record is, that we evaluate their programs and who they would harm and who they would help. That - I think that every journalist's job is to stand off and try to be - to give an objective assessment based upon the performance and...
Mr. FORD: And how that measures up against pronouncements.
Mr. FORD: We don't - we're not - none of us are supposed to be rooting for our favorites, are we?
MARTIN: I see. All right, David Sirota, final thought from you. What's your job from here on out? How do you see yourself, as - Glen was just saying what he considers his mandate, what's yours?
Mr. SIROTA: Well, I think the mandate is to report the facts. I mean, that's what I do as a journalist. And I just want to go back to the question that you asked about whether a progress - I think is effectively whether a progressive candidate, a truly progressive candidate, somebody that I like, or we like, can win. I think the answer is yes because I think that we saw that. In other words, Barack Obama presented himself on the campaign trail as an out-and-out, full-throated progressive. That candidate, that image, that platform won. Now, the question is whether that candidate is willing to expend the political capital and have the confrontations to make that campaign platform a reality.
Mr. SIROTA: That's what we don't know.
MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now, but we hope you'll all come back and talk to us from time to time about these issues. Syndicated columnist David Sirota. He joined us from member station KCFR in Denver, Colorado. Glen Ford is executive editor of the weekly online magazine Black Agenda Report. He joined us from Plainfield, New Jersey. And Kathy Spillar is executive editor of Ms. Magazine and the executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which publishes the magazine. She joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. I thank you all so much.
Mr. SIROTA: Thank you.
Mr. FORD: Thank you.
Ms. SPILLAR: Thank you.
MARTIN: Next week, we'll be getting the perspective of some conservative thinkers on the early days of the Obama administration. And we would like to hear from you. Are there issues that you want the president to say more about? Have any of President Obama's early policy moves left you pleasantly surprised, or disappointed? To tell us more about what you think, please call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522. Please remember to tell us your name or you can always to go to our Web site at npr.org and blog it out.
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