Making Change: Progressives in the Obama Moment

Robert Borosage

President Obama has deep and strong support from progressives. But in Washington, the media is increasingly focused on areas where Obama’s base is disappointed or restive In recent weeks, we seen the uproar over his retreat on preventive detention and military tribunals, dismay over the dallying on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” growing opposition to the bailout of Wall Street, increasing doubts about the escalation in Afghanistan, and fears that compromises with conservative Democrats could cut the heart out of the progressive reform agenda that the president has proposed – as illustrated by the ability of the banking lobby to enlist enough Democrats to block any lid on interest rates out of credit card reform.

Now, as progressives gather in Washington at the America’s Future Now! Conference (the annual event formerly known as Take Back America) sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future (which I co-direct, program and sessions available here), the mainstream media wants to know: Are progressives still supporting Obama or are they pushing him?

Surely the answer to that choice is “yes.” Progressives are both supporting him and challenging the limits of the current debate.

We’re on the verge of the greatest era of progressive reform since the 1960s. The crises we face – the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and the unprecedented and accelerating deterioration of the environment – leave no choice. We can’t simply recover and go back to the old economy. We have to build a new economy from the ruins of the old. (for a longer version of this argument, co-authored with Katrina van den Heuvel of the Nation Magazine, go here)

Obama gets this. He has eloquently called upon us to rebuild our economy on the rock of a new foundation, not the shifting sands of the old. And the pillars of that foundation are the structural reforms that progressives have championed: new energy for good jobs, comprehensive health care, investing in education from pre-K to affordable college, empowering workers to organize, and immigration reform.

We’ve got Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress, but not progressive majorities. With Republicans largely committed to pure obstruction, focus immediately fixes on conservative Democrats, particularly in the Senate, and the endangered specie known as moderate Republicans, who have the votes needed to pass the reforms.

For all the talk of cooperation, these reforms face entrenched opposition from corporate and special interest lobbies. They understand the threat they face, so the more sophisticated play a double game. They hire largely Democratic lobbyists to help delay, defer, dilute the reforms on the inside, while painting themselves as embracing reform. They then fund swift boat operations on the outside, to run Astroturf and air war campaigns to frighten Americans about reform. And of course, they spread their political contributions around, with more money going to Democrats now that they control the action.

So the hospitals and insurance lobbies meet publicly with Obama to issue a vague promise to make significant cuts in the rising costs of health care. At the same time, former hospital CEO Rick Scott, whose company was fined a princely $1.7 million for overbilling state and federal medical plans, is spending over 30 million on ads designed to scare Americans about the takeover of their health care system, ads coordinated by the very firm that did the “swift boat” attacks on John Kerry in 2004

On each of these signature battles, active progressive coalitions have been built to help define the reform, drive the debate, expose the lobbies, and mobilize support in key districts and states. Here progressives and the Obama administration are largely together. While there may be differences in tone and tactic – these are independent coalitions after all – the goal is the same. Difficulties arise, of course, when deals are cut and compromises made. Progressive groups, often part of the negotiations, have to decide if the product is worth supporting. Environmentalists, for example, split over the compromises in the Waxman-Markey climate bill, with some – Public Citizen, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace – questioning whether it would weaken rather than strengthen existing laws.

Many activists see Obama as one of us, with his background of community organizing. The young believe, correctly, that they helped elect him president and are ardent enthusiasts. That provides him with an enormous benefit of the doubt, even in areas like the banking bailout, Afghanistan, and more where there is growing consternation at the course the administration is following.

In these major areas, progressives need to be building and independent argument and movement to challenge the limits of the current debate. These issues go to the larger questions of remaking America.. The bailout goes to Wall Street’s hold on our economy and politics. Obama has forcefully stated that finance needs to get smaller, and be more regulated, but thusfar his policies have been to subsidize the big banks, not to reorganize them. The contrast between the treatment of Citibank and Chrysler, or Bank of America and General Motors, and between the bankers and the autoworkers and dealers and suppliers is stark. A populist movement challenging Wall Street is essential to create the space for reform.

Afghanistan reflects the military dominated global strategy that remains in place. Obama has taken on some Cold War weapons systems, but still projects military budgets that are as large as the rest of the world’s combined. He has not questioned the commitment to policing the world that Americans have never supported and can no longer afford. Obama has already faced conservative pushback on the modest changes he’s made in the war on terror. It will require an independent movement to have any hope of changing our priorities and challenging a terror strategy that serves to elevate rather than isolate our enemies.

America can’t go back to borrowing $2 billion a day from abroad, largely from the Chinese and Japanese central bankers. Obama’s energy policy and the aggressive efforts to salvage GM and Chrysler suggest the beginnings of a new industrial policy, fitting his pledge that we have to consume less and export more. The dialogue begun with China on moving from export led growth to more internal demand is central to a new policy. But at the same time, the administration is promoting the old trade accords, and is unclear at best about its global economic strategy. This is understandable given the firm, but outmoded establishment consensus on trade. Again, an independent movement, grounded in labor but far broader, will be vital to help drive this debate.

No one should forget the lessons of the 1930s and the1960s. The Second New Deal – the New Deal we remember with Social Security, the Wagner Act, Fair Labor Standards that gave us the weekend – came in reaction to growing labor unrest, the rise of Huey Long and the Townsend Movement, all of which gave FDR incentive and excuse to move. The Voting Rights Act came after Selma, when the sacrifices of the civil rights movement transformed public opinion and enabled LBJ to deliver the Senate.

Progressives want Obama to succeed, to be a transformative president. He has put big reforms on the table which citizens are organizing to support. And at the same time, we need to expand the agenda, challenge the limits of the debate, and move excluded alternatives into discussion.

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