People saw ‘what they wanted to see’ in Obama


There was a lack of a real analysis of who Barack Obama was, what his actual politics were and what one could see happening in his administration, says longtime labour and racial justice activist Bill Fletcher Jr.

“In Barack Obama, there was a tendency for people to see what they wanted to see,” said Fletcher who delivered the annual Phyllis Clarke memorial lecture last week at Ryerson University.

Fletcher said the U.S. president made it clear that while he was against the Iraq war, he was not opposed to the war in Afghanistan and he was prepared to carry out military strikes in Pakistan if necessary.

“He made this all clear, but there were many of us in the United States who refused to hear that,” he said. “We just shut our ears and after he was elected, we drew a conclusion that was completely erroneous. The conclusion was that someone who was so strident in his opposition to the Iraq war had to have somehow absorb some of that anti-war sentiment that would translate into his approach in Afghanistan when there was absolutely no foundation for believing that.

“And therefore when he decided to deploy troops to Afghanistan, it was a mistake when people said he betrayed them. He was very clear and consistent. The problem was there was a tendency for many forces – liberal, progressive and left – to see what they wanted to see in part out of our anger and desperation for change.”

The executive editor of The Black Commentator and founder of the Centre for Labour Renewal, Fletcher described Obama as “very nice-looking, incredibly smart and very eloquent and thoughtful”. He also said Obama has an irresistible impulse in the face of controversy to jump to the centre and attempt to build a consensus around a middle decision.

Fletcher suggested that the politics of the Obama administration are centre right and not very different from former president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary’s platform.

“The difference between Hillary Clinton and Obama was not so much in their platform, but in their base,” he said. “People were voting for hope and transformation through Obama. That is what distinguished his candidacy from Hillary Clinton’s.”

A former TransAfrica Forum president, Fletcher said he supported Obama’s decision to tackle health care reform in the face of the economic depression and chronic unemployment.

“I think that was a smart move because he probably knew that the mid-term elections, even if he did well, would mean some loss of Democratic seats in the House and the Senate,” said Fletcher. “Therefore, he had two years to make this move on health care before the Republicans might switch the balance.

“From that standpoint, it made perfect sense to move on health care. The problem was that instead of starting his position with the demand for single payer Medicare for all, he starts with this convoluted situation and description of a program that confused everybody and, in that confusion, the right wing populace was able to take advantage and start playing into people’s fears. People couldn’t figure out what the Obama plan meant to them.

“In that situation, the right wing got it right. I don’t mean that their position was correct. I mean from a tactical standpoint, they got it and they appealed to people’s fears. They moved in and completely disrupted things. So, whereas Obama’s supporters were looking at his administration and assuming that what was going to happen was that we would begin this move towards some real health care reform, that in fact didn’t happen and people started falling into despair.”

Fletcher said organized labour has been anemic in its response to positions taken by the Obama administration, preferring instead to give them a pass.

“The absence of an organized political left means that we are going to see these fits and starts,” he added. “What we are not necessarily going to see is the cascading of resistance.”

Phyllis Clarke, a member of the Communist Party who helped to define Ryerson’s commitment to intellectual inquiry and social justice, passed away in March 1988.

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