Obama's Election Has Been a Boon to Liberal Think Tanks and Lobbying Firms

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009

Less than 24 hours after President Obama announced the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, an alliance formed solely to push the appointment launched a six-figure ad buy on the major television networks.

"Raised in public housing by a working mom who taught her the power of education," the text of the ad reads, as Obama talks in the background about the virtues of an ideal jurist. "Tough prosecutor. Distinguished judge. Practical understanding of the law."

Conservative groups, by contrast, stumbled through days of disjointed messages and never mustered the resources for a major television campaign. By the end of the week, Republicans were fighting among themselves over the perils of attacking the nation's first Hispanic nominee to the high court.

The episode was one of the latest examples of how Obama's election has dramatically altered the landscape occupied by the advocacy groups, think tanks and lobbying firms that make up Washington's sprawling influence industry. Democratic and left-leaning groups are now ascendant, enjoying clout not seen in a generation and benefiting from close access to a White House brimming with former colleagues.

Many of the groups spent the Bush years championing policies that had little chance of being adopted; now, their ideas and positions are at the center of the Washington debate. Obama's plan to offer public health insurance to compete with the private sector, for example, has its roots in a series of obscure papers circulated among liberal policy analysts several years ago. Some of those analysts are now briefing the administration and Congress on how the system could be implemented.

Several thousand liberal activists have gathered in Washington this week for a national conference that includes appearances by Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis and other administration officials. The three-day event, "America's Future Now," focuses heavily on health-care reform, climate-change policy and other issues championed by Obama.

But liberal groups are also learning the limits of their influence, whether they are being thwarted by conservative Democrats in the Senate or undermined by a president who has pursued a centrist path on many terrorism and defense issues. One example came in April, when a proposal allowing bankruptcy judges to reduce mortgage payments went down to easy defeat in the Senate, despite support from Obama and consumer groups.

"We're in an era now where we have a president who has committed to a transformative agenda of progressive change, but it's absolutely clear that change will be impossible without enormous involvement from the grass roots," said Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, an Internet-focused advocacy group that nearly doubled in size, to more than 5 million members, during the 2008 presidential campaign. "That's what our role is. It's not enough to change who's in power."

Many of the most influential liberal groups are new or relatively young. Fresh groups on the scene include Business Forward, which attempts to attract corporate support for Obama's economic policies; Unity '09, a coalition of progressive groups focused on pushing Obama's policy agenda; and Organizing for America, an Obama-sanctioned outreach project at the Democratic National Committee.

There are young left-leaning groups devoted to health care (Health Care for America Now), economics (the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities), defense (the Center for a New American Security) and labor issues (Change to Win). Another group, Common Purpose, holds seminars every Tuesday at the Capital Hilton near the White House, bringing together more than 100 liberal activists with Obama administration aides to debate policy and plot strategy.

Matt Bennett, public affairs director for Third Way, a center-left think tank, said the groups amount to "a new intellectual infrastructure" for progressives in Washington.

The granddaddy of the new vanguard is the Center for American Progress, a think tank founded with three employees in 2003 by longtime Democratic adviser John D. Podesta, who served as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff and ran Obama's transition office. Now with 180 employees and a $25 million annual budget, CAP has its own lobbying arm, called the Center for American Progress Action Fund; a student-focused project called Campus Progress; and a political blog called Think Progress.

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