Grist: Barack Obama is not Bagger Vance

My colleague David Roberts at Grist has a provocative post I am reprinting below.  I think it is an important message for progressives to hear (see “Memo to enviros, progressives: The deniers and dirty energy bunch are “full of passionate intensity” “” and eating our lunch on the climate bill!“) although I only half agree with him.  I think that if team Obama’s messaging and outreach had been superlative (as it was for most of the campaign), rather than dreadful as it has been for over two months now, that both the health care and climate bills would be in far better shape.  But that would still not be any guarantee of success nor would it necessarily have resulted in a climate bill on his desk substantially stronger than the one the House passed, for many reasons some of which Roberts spells out.  Even Obama can’t single-handedly beat the well-funded disinformers when progressives in genral are lousy at messaging and big media is impotent? I’ll blog more on messaging in September.  Comments on Roberts’ piece are welcome. are pretty grim among progressives these days, what with health care bogging down and climate legislation on indefinite delay; right wing crazies everywhere and Blue Dogs intransigent; the organized coalition that brought Obama to office fractured and ineffective. Disillusionment is in the air.

In response, on listservs and private conversations, I’m hearing more and more people express some version of the following sentiment:  Barack Obama should save us. According to this line of thinking, if Obama really got serious, got his messaging right, did a really good speech, exercised his extraordinary popularity with the American people, he could right the ship for his two main domestic initiatives, both of which are drifting perilously close to the shoals.

It’s understandable. Everyone still remembers the extraordinary high of the campaign, the rare and almost forgotten feeling of being genuinely moved by a civic-minded politician. Everyone wants that high back, as an escape from the lies, bottlenecks, and general unpleasantness that now beset us.

But let me be blunt: Barack Obama is not our magic negro. He’s not Bagger Vance.

He hasn’t come along to teach the ornery white folk the error of their ways. He’s just the president, a centrist Democrat embedded in a power structure replete with roadblocks and constraints. The president, even an extraordinarily popular president, can only do so much. Making one more speech won’t have any effect on Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) or Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). It won’t reduce the money pouring from dirty energy companies into congressional coffers. It won’t change anybody’s mind at a teabagging rally or a dirty energy astroturfing event. This notion that Obama trying harder is the key to progressive success is just a siren song; it delays getting serious.

Along these lines, read Mike Tomasky. It’s about health care, but it applies just as well to the climate/energy fight:

So now, liberals have to fight hard for something they’re not terribly excited about. A health bill will likely have a very weak public option or it won’t have one at all. But liberals will have to battle for that bill as if it’s life and death (which in fact it will be for thousands of Americans), because its defeat would constitute a historic victory for the birthers and the gun-toters and the Hitler analogists. In the coming weeks, building toward a possible congressional vote in November, progressives will have to get out in force to show middle America that there’s support for reform as well as opposition, even though they may find the final bill disappointing.

This is what movements do””they do the hard, slow work of winning political battles and changing public opinion over time. It isn’t fun. It isn’t something is going to make a clever and moving video about, and it offers precious few moments for YouTube. It takes years, which is a bummer, in a political culture that measures success and failure by the hour. The end of euphoria should lead not to disillusionment, but to seriousness of purpose.

Obama can’t save progressives. They’ll save their agenda, if at all, with persistence and organizing. As it always was.

— Dave Roberts


20 Responses to Grist: Barack Obama is not Bagger Vance

  1. Seth Masia says:

    FDR to progressives: “Good idea. Now make me do it.”

  2. Which is a good reminder why it would be nice to have folks join in organizing for Oct. 24 at The lobbying inside the beltway will be a lot easier with some intense organizing going on outside it.

  3. Steve Bloom says:

    Tomasky’s argument is just plain Broderism, and I’m surprised to see Dave fall for it. Over at DKos, talk among the Dem activists is of taking out the wafflers like Baucus and Nelson if the final bill lacks a serious public option. It was pointed out that the lack of a public option would mean forcing huge numbers of Obama’s constituency to buy crappy private health plans, and that this could amount to political suicide for him.

    [JR: “Wafflers like … Nelson.” Nelson was always a 100% no vote on public option and climate bill. He ain’t no waffler. He’s a DINO.]

    Also, it’s not a matter of Obama trying harder in some undefined way, specifically it’s him engaging in the Congressional arm-twisting needed to pass a good bill. Most of the flack he’s been getting has been due to the lack of visible activity along those lines even while the Baucus “process” drags on and on. *Maybe* all of this is part of a plan to pass the bill with a simple majority while making the Republicans take the blame for the failure of bipartisanship, but such a strategy could easily backfire.

  4. First off, thanks Joe Romm, for bringing David Roberts’ terrific work to the attention of the Climate Progress audience. I’m a big fan of Roberts writing, his insights and his edge. I particularly liked his Bagger Vance piece, think he is right on and I’d add the following thoughts to it –

    Putting it all on Obama’s shoulders doesn’t just delay getting serious, it delays people getting to work. Too many people took the summer off. In fact, plenty of them pretty much took all of 2009 off so far, acting like they had broken the tape, crossed the finish line and had a victory tour of celebration and rejoicing coming to them. They don’t get that the heavy lifting for all of us only began AFTER we got the job. And we’ve still got to do that heavy lifting even if don’t get any income from that job. The work must be done regardless.

    My Italian grandfather used to say, “You don’t ask, you don’t get.” 66,882,230 of us voted for Obama and that was the last time 90% of those folks sent a message about what they wanted. Progressive communicators and activists need to motivate and arouse that constituency to start speaking out for the change they voted for. The winning majority of just 10 months ago needs to get “Fired Up, Ready to Go!” and flex its considerable power. It’s time to stop waiting to be given things, and start demanding with an unyielding sense of urgency.

    One final thought. I am not interested in any way of achieving bipartisan change. There is no reason in hell to compromise with, or try to please, the likes of Exxon’s Senator Inhofe, Charles Grassley, Mitch McConnell, Sessions, Shelby, Brownback, Coburn, Corker or Carl Rove, Rush Limbaugh or any of the other right wing, climate sellouts who have traded their our grandchildrens’ futures for more gold and treasure in their vaults today.

    That’s what I’ve told the President in my letter when I reminded him of all the previous progressive legislative victories achieved without any help from the GOP. The President would be drinking from a separate water fountain if it were up to Republicans.

    It’s time to draw a line in the sand before sea level rise washes the whole beach away.

  5. Dean says:

    Roberts is right that Obama can’t be the savior and shouldn’t be expected to, though that is the way things often work out. But Obama does have to work to keep to coalition together. Uniting the hardcore and the moderates is the regular challenge for any party and it’s leader. It’s no secret that progressives want single payer for health care. It isn’t just that Obama isn’t proposing single payer, he is bashing it at every opportunity, and even mis-describing it, like at his press conf where he said that in Canada, the govt employs doctors and owns hospoitals. Meaning that anybody who wants to support the current plan in hopes that it might morph into single payer has no motivation. It’s like climate activists arguing against clean coal (sic) and seeing commercials of Obama lauding it (though in that case at least we understand swing state politics). In health care, Obama has driven progressives away, leaving him with no base to organize with.

    It’s not that clearcut with climate. It’s always easier to unite against something than for it. Despite my lack of ardor for the methods chosen in W-M, I do blanch when hear its progressive opponents use strong terminology against it that gets highlighted on WUWT and elsewhere. Climate activist opponents of W-M seems to just assume that if it fails, that a carbon tax is waiting in the wings, and that just strikes me as the most fanciful wishful thinking.

  6. Jeff Huggins says:

    A Few Words

    We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations, as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties.
    — Thomas Jefferson

    The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.
    — Albert Einstein

    You seem to have forgotten this philosophical maxim: It is the worst misfortune of all when by false reasoning we come to accept the perverse notion that things have to be as they are.
    — Petrarch

    But fatalism is just that: fatal. To throw up our hands is to die.
    — M. Scott Peck

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity
    — W. B. Yeats

    Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
    — Martin Luther King Jr.

    Anyone who wants a certain result, but is quite happy with the absence of what would bring it about, has obviously no understanding of either causes or effects.
    — Petrarch

    I had my chance and lost it,
    many chances & didn’t
    take them seriously enuf.
    Oh yes I was impressed, almost
    went mad with fear
    I’d lose the immortal chance,
    One lost it.
    Allen Ginsberg warns you
    don’t follow my path
    to extinction.

    — Allan Ginsberg, excerpt from “After Lalon”

    The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.
    — Machiavelli (an oft-quoted paraphrase, but true to his meaning)

    Pick up the Cry!
    — Grace Slick, Jefferson Airplane, “Volunteers”

  7. Rick Covert says:

    Isn’t it remarkable that the same Senators apposing a public option for health care, forget the single payer plan for a moment, are the same bought and paid for Senators by big oil, big coal, the railroads, big pharma and the health insurance companies that are saying no to an effective climate energy bill.

  8. Matt says:

    Takling climate change means mobilizing the country (and the world) much like efforts involved in WWII. That will involve motivating substantially more people and institutions than are involved now. The usual partisan lenses are not helpful in this context. Yes – the leadership of the Republican party is controlled by crazy people and their are a substantial number of Americans who buy into the Big Lie but we need to see the campaign for WM as something that seeks to win the strongest possible bill (it will not be perfect) and end up in a stronger position (with public sympathy, stronger coalitions, more volunteers, $, and better positioned with elites to marginalize the deniers) so we can get to work strengthening what ever emerges. We will get the job done. Any movement that can blame it leaders (in this case, Obama) is not a Movement as much as a victims support group. Sh*t Happens. Meaningful Climate Change policies do not.

  9. Jeff Huggins says:

    Four More (and then I’ll shut up)

    In the present circumstances, no one can afford to assume that someone else will solve their problems. Every individual has a responsibility to help guide our global family in the right direction. Good wishes are not sufficient; we must become actively engaged.
    — The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso)

    What good am I if I know and don’t do,
    If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you,
    If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin’ sky,
    What good am I?
    — Bob Dylan, “What Good Am I?”

    You’re either on the bus, or off the bus.
    — Ken Kesey

    There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
    — Morpheus, “The Matrix” (movie)

  10. Rockfish says:

    Progressives didn’t elect Obama, North Carolina and Ohio did. They didn’t elect him to turn America into some hippy liberal commune, they elected him to get their freakin’ jobs back.
    I live in a blue state (remember those?)- a state that was going to vote for him even if he was running against Elvis and Mother Theresa. He doesn’t need to work blue states, or progressives, because they are in the bag. And the swing states want their jobs back, their guns free, and their taxes low. That’s it.

    Progressives are being just as petulant as conservatives. Many strongly believe that if they can’t the bill they want, they’d just as soon have no bill at all. Conveniently, they don’t have to do anything to ensure that outcome, so what would motivate them?

    The conservatives have to fight a bit to get their preferred option – no bill at all – so they are fighting. Don’t forget, you don’t need to turn half the country – the difference between 51% and 49% is not 50%, it’s only 2%…

  11. Lou Grinzo says:

    Jeff: Whatever you do, DON’T shut up.

    We need those reminders, and the way they lift our gaze from the ground before us and make us focus once again on the horizon, now more than ever.

    (Also, consider them stolen and added to my quotes file.)

  12. Bill McKibben is right! and I’m proud to be the Chairman of the South Bay Los Angeles 350 Climate Action Group. We’ve put together a growing alliance that includes our local chapters of Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Heal the Bay, Surfrider Foundation, Leave of Woman Voters, Congresswoman Harman, State Senator Oropeza, County Supervisor Knabe, and the City of Manhattan Beach who will be our official hosts.

    We’ll be forming the Amazing Waving Human Tide Line on the sand in Manhattan Beach to demonstrate where sea level rise will bring the waves if we don’t reduce emissions and head back towards 350ppm of CO2.

    We’re reaching out to groups and individuals all over Los Angeles County and everyone we talk to wants to participate and be there. We’d welcome any of you who want to join us on our beautiful beaches and demonstrate your support of 350. Find out more:

  13. Gail Denemark says:

    Granted we desperately need a huge and loud global movement demanding bold, immediate action to address global warming, and granted our leaders are looking for this political cover to “allow” them to take the necessary steps forward, but in my eyes, we, (and particularly our politicians) are making the mistake of responding to the issue of climate change as though it were like any other social issue of importance.

    We simply don’t have the time to wait to build the critical mass of a powerful-enough movement…. This is not to say that we in any way should stop these efforts. But rather, we need to be pushing on every front simultaneously.

    As we’re painfully seeing with the healthcare “debate”, our message is getting convoluted and paved over by those who can simply shout the loudest.

    As with our climate legislation, I think it is imperative to have simple and clear messaging that people can readily understand and get behind.

    We need the leadership of Obama (someone with extraordinary communicative skills) to set the tone and make the public understand that we are not dealing with any ol’ issue here. It needs to be made very clear that we are in an emergency – a dire emergency.

    Bush was able to fabricate an emergency to get his outrageous agenda enacted. Now that we truly face an emergency of unparalleled proportions, we act as though it was just another day at the beach – granted, maybe the sand is a bit hotter!

    We are facing a historic crisis and a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

  14. Dallas says:

    Progressives are not bad at messaging. It’s just that sometimes the truth is harder to explain. For example, with health care, requesting that doctors provide end of life counseling to elderly and terminally ill is a lot harder to understand than “DEATH PANELS!”. Or in Climate science, the hundreds of millions of tons of global warming gasses released by human and absorbing radiant energy in their covalent bonds is harder to visualize than “It still snowed last winter.”

    Progressives problem is that most people don’t have time to research and learn about many of the problems, and are likely too uneducated to understand if they did. So they trust the words of others and the simplest sound bite is the one they remember. Bush was excellent at and understood the sound bite. Every speech he gave was one sound bite after another. Obama believes that a well spoken, well crafted argument will convince most people. He’s wrong. Most people change the channel.

  15. PeterW says:

    Obama’s big mistake was that he went after Health Care and Climate Change before he tried to fix the system. If he concentrated on taming K Street and the Media first, he would have been much more successful. Now he’s hitting the same wall that always stops progressive action in the U.S., BIG MONEY.

  16. paulm says:

    Did WWII have a savior and if so, who was this?

  17. David B. Benson says:

    paulm (16) — Joseph Stalin, I’m afraid.

  18. Jeff Huggins says:


    On June 21, 2007, ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson gave a speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in the United Kingdom. The speech is titled “meeting growing energy demand and addressing climate risks”, and it’s buried a few levels down within ExxonMobil’s own website. (See below.)

    Here is how Mr. Tillerson concluded his speech to the Royal Institute, just over two years ago:

    * * *

    The British philosopher and social activist Bertrand Russell once said, “We must care about the world of our children and grandchildren, a world we may never see.”

    Indeed, we cannot yet see our grandchildren’s world, its economy or its climate. But we must care about it. We must care enough to treat the risks of global poverty and global warming seriously. We must care enough to take actions to address them. And we must care enough, as a society, to manage the risks effectively to maximize the economic and environmental benefits available to our grandchildren, and theirs.

    And with leadership such as from those of you in this room, I know we can.

    Thank you for your kind attention.

    * * *

    OK now. That was Rex Tillerson himself, two years ago. If you can’t believe it, please read it again. And see below for the link to the full transcript.

    Unless they don’t speak English in England, or unless you are supposed to talk to the Royal Institute one way and to the rest of us another, I sense a problem, don’t you?

    The problem is not just that Rex didn’t quote the Beatles: “Love is all you need.”

    No, it seems to me that the problem is somewhat more than that!

    But there is another point too, which is this: If WE (e.g., the American media, concerned scientists, genuine climate causes, responsible politicians, the Bertrand Russell Society, any other philosophers who admire Bertrand Russell, people with grandchildren, and all sane and sensible people everywhere) can’t take that sort of quote, and all related information, and shine some bright light on ExxonMobil, and help the broader public gain some understanding of the problem and get motivated, then WE are part of the problem. After all, what sort of evidence of a hypocritical stance and hypocritical quotes do we need? How effective are we? How much does The New York Times care? How much do the media care?

    What better material for a great (and necessary) session by J. Stewart? What better comment to be noted by Rachel Maddow as she helps convey to the public what ExxonMobil is actually doing and NOT doing? What better quote for the politicians to note, when they demand that Tillerson show up for a concrete get-to-the-bottom-of-this televised hearing? (Hint to Congress: Interrupt his schedule, even if he’s set to have tea with the Queen.)

    I mean, “really”!

    OK, now for documentation and all that: The full transcript of the speech is on ExxonMobil’s website, here:

    If I were you (in the audience or at CP), I’d make a copy of the speech and print it. It is getting near to the bottom of their list of speeches, and it wouldn’t surprise me one iota if they rotate it off the site, especially if it becomes too “problematic” for them.

    Be Well,



  19. john says:

    David says:

    I’m hearing more and more people express some version of the following sentiment: Barack Obama should save us. According to this line of thinking, if Obama really got serious, got his messaging right, did a really good speech, exercised his extraordinary popularity with the American people, he could right the ship for his two main domestic initiatives, both of which are drifting perilously close to the shoals.

    But I think this misses the source of anger/concern among progressives. We don’t want to be “saved” and we’re not insisting on a win, and we’re not looking for the perfect speech.

    What we want is for Obama to fight the right fight. At the root of all our difficulties in public debates are these two myths:

    The private sector will deliver all good things by pure serendipity;
    Big Gubmin’t caint do nothin’ right.

    That underlies the debate on health care and climate. It must be taken on. The notion that government can be a force for good — indeed, it must be used to assure the common weal — has to become accepted or we’re boxing shadows.

    We can’t avoid the fight.

    Obama promised to change “the system.” K-street will not be tamed until and unless we take these myths on and destroy them.

    To quote Aaron Sorkin, from the American President, “We have to fight the fight that must be fought, not the fight we can win.”

    It’s time. The Earth is immune to our political realities; impervious to our strategems. It’s about physics now. And the math isn’t adding up.

    That’s what’s got us riled up, Dave. We don’t want clever messaging or better spins (although I agree with Joe, it would help). What we want is to quit bowing before the Reaganesqe BS that’s been poisoning this country for three decades — to take it on directly, win lose or draw. Because the fact is, if we do anything less, we automatically lose.

  20. ML says:


    Progressives are, alas, often bad at messaging. Our belief that we aren’t messaging is part of the problem. Every comment, every argument, is messaging, and if it’s not persuasive then it’s not effective messaging.

    If President Obama is not connecting with voters, and they’re changing the channel, then he is NOT giving a “well spoken, well crafted argument.”

    Bush did use short sound bites. But he was also effective because he gave a consistent message. He repeated his themes relentlessly and did not digress or go off message no matter what the press asked or how they challenged him.

    George Lakoff wrote a great piece recently that analyzed how the Dems have gone wrong on health care messaging, and how they can turn it around:

    Highly recommended.