Running to the Right: Barack Obama and the DLC Strategy

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Presidential Politics 2008 – Obama

Wednesday, 07 May 2008

by BAR Managing Editor Bruce Dixon

The fragility of Barack Obama’s DLC-inspired electoral strategy is now exposed for all to see. Obama has chosen to “reach out” to white and Republican voters while challenging none of their assumptions about America, racism or empire, at the same time, counting on a deaf and blind black nationalism to shield him from accountability to African Americans. Republicans (and Hillary Clinton) know all they need do to counter him is prove to whites that he is not as conservative as he seems. Obama will thus be forced to scramble relentlessly rightward from here on, disowning, denouncing and dishonoring any and all stirrings of black or grassroots militancy to keep white support without telling white America anything it doesn’t want to know.

“In the DLC playbook, the road to winning elections is appealing to Republican-leaning white voters ” 

Back in 2003, when Obama was a candidate for the US Senate in the Illinois Democratic primary this reporter and Glen Ford challenged him on the fact of his affiliation with the Democratic Leadership Council.  The right-wing, corporate-funded Trojan Horse inside the Democratic party had fervently embraced his political career, naming him one of its “100 to Watch” for 2003.

DLC endorsement is the gold standard of political reliability for Wall Street, Big Energy, Big Pharma, insurance, the airlines and more. Though candidates normally undergo extensive questioning and interviews before DLC endorsement, Obama insisted the blessing of these corporate special interests had been bestowed on him without these formalities and without his advance knowledge, and formally disassociated himself from the DLC. But like Hillary Clinton, and every front-running Democrat since Michael Dukakis in 1988, Barack Obama’s campaign has adopted the classic right wing DLC strategy.

In the DLC playbook, the road to winning elections is appealing to Republican-leaning white voters – demographic groups which pollsters and consultants in previous elections called “suburban soccer moms”, NASCAR dads,” and before that “Reagan Democrats.” Candidates do this by decrying excessive partisanship, embracing “free trade” and “conservative” values, and displays of public piety, Though Obama has no formal ties with the DLC he has assiduously followed this prescription. Till a month ago Obama led every candidate among white men, an unprecedented achievement for a Democrat.

But after less than a month of sustained and often racist attacks from the likes of Fox News, CNN, Republican pundits and Hillary Clinton supporters, Obama’s support among Republican-leaning white voters has sharply eroded. Dr. Adolph Reed, a black professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania explained why in an April 30 Democracy Now interview,

“…Obama opened himself to this by leaning to—on the premise that he can appeal to Republicans and to conservatives and by parading his personal faith around. And frankly—this is, I guess, the crux of my argument in The Progressive column—that this is precisely the tactic that has been the undoing of every Democratic candidate since Dukakis, and I would frankly even include (Bill) Clinton in that, were it not for the fact that Ross Perot siphoned votes away from the Republicans each time. I mean, this is what happened with Gore in 2000, it’s what happened with Kerry in 2004. You present yourself as electable because you can appeal to conservative voters, and then the Republicans attack you for not being a true conservative and can characterize you as someone who’s trying to put something over on the American people.”

It worked for a while. Barack Obama followed the DLC script to the letter for the last two years, publicly scolding Democrats for their insufficient piety, liberally borrowing from Republican talking points. He advertised himself as grounded by his personal relationship with Jesus, and by the faith tradition of the Black Church. But after Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race, in which he characterized his pastor as a crazy old uncle stuck in the fifties and sixties, the Black Church was compelled to speak for itself. Rev. Jeremiah Wright, retiring pastor at Trinity UCC made a series of speeches and appearances in which he likened US Marines to Roman soldiers, described hundreds of US bases around the world as “empire” before the National Press Club, and refused to retreat from the contention that 9-11 was a preventable consequence of US foreign policy.

To preserve his support among whites which Obama won without challenging any of their fundamental beliefs about America and empire, Obama was forced to denounce his pastor’s words as “akin to hate speech” and disavow his church, and with it the prophetic tradition of Christianity and the Black Church in particular. But this, and joining a prosperity-Gospel mega-church will not be enough. From this point on, all Republicans have to do is prove to their base that Obama is not as conservative as he once appeared, which they will do by pointing to his pastor and the prophetic tradition of the Black Church in general. They can, in fact, point to any stirrings of black or grassroots outrage or militancy anywhere, which Obama will want to ignore anyway, and demand a ringing denunciation from Barack Obama. When Obama gets his way, he will be silent, sticking to content-free appeals to “unity”. And when Republicans prevail they will force him to denounce at every turn the grassroots activists he should be supporting.

By contrast, the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns of Rev. Jesse Jackson won white support too, but embraced the burden of challenging white American assumptions about the essential goodness of America, about empire, and race and class. If you were organizing against police brutality or farm foreclosures, organizing a union or protesting the illegal war in Central America, the campaign in many cases came to you and augmented your local efforts. The Obama campaign must avoid this kind of activism like Dracula avoids crosses, because its candidate’s appeal is based on challenging none of the fake history, none of the racism, injustice and unearned privilege at the heart of American life.

The Jackson campaign, at least, was honest about the obstacles to a real politics of transformation in America.

For the 21st century’s first black presidential candidate, “change” is to be accomplished through a content-free sort of “unity”. Again, Dr. Reed helps us understand what is happening.

”…the contention that the candidate can bring us all together despite our partisan differences is the same thing that the Democrats have been claiming consistently since at least, you know, Dukakis, to be post-partisan, to be post-political. And frankly, I think it appeals—it’s an appeal that gets greatest traction among people who want to take politics out of politics…

Taking the politics out of politics, and out of black politics in particular is what Barack Obama must do to carry out his DLC strategy and retain his white base without teaching them anything they don’t want to know. When the NYC police officers who pumped 51 bullets into an unarmed man and a hail of bullets into adjacent homes and a transit station were exonerated, Barack Obama could not bring himself to suggest that black life ought to be respected, that police officers should obey the law, that an Obama Justice Department would look carefully at this kind of thing, or even to feign concern for the victims and their families. His only comments where that we were “a nation of laws” and that we should “respect the verdict”. When 25,000 longshoremen on the US West Coast staged a one-day strike on May 1 against the war in Iraq, the Obama campaign said nothing about the power of people standing together to “bring change”. When US warplanes, which fire missiles and drop bombs almost daily over oil-rich Somalia killed 15 civilians last week, Obama was silent, despite having traveled in the region as recently as last year.

When he does speak, it won’t be good news. Republicans are sure to escalate their demands, insisting that Barack Obama denounce a list of black and progressive organizations, activities, beliefs and individuals to retain his share of their base. And as long as Obama is wedded to the DLC strategy, he will eagerly comply.

If there was an actual mass-based progressive movement in the US, operating on the ground and independent of political parties and campaigns, it might have a prayer of holding Barack Obama accountable. But there isn’t.

Bruce Dixon is Managing Editor at Black Agenda Report, and can be reached at bruce.dixon(at) 

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