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Progressives seek to gain momentum for change at America's Future Now conference

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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010; 5:08 PM

Progressive movement activists gathered in Washington on Monday declared themselves dismayed, even angry, at President Obama and Democrats in Congress for being too timid and compromising in pursuing change on issues from health care to the environment to the economy.

The speakers at the America's Future Now conference that began Monday called for a political uprising independent of the Democratic Party.

"This has been the greatest flurry of reform in over 50 years, and yet through it we have grown more dissatisfied -- and for good reason," said Robert L. Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, said in a speech opening the conference. "The White House has been an uncertain trumpet."

Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the liberal news Web site the Huffington Post, referred to Obama's 2008 campaign message by saying: "It's clear that 'hope' is not enough. What we need is Hope 2.0, and that is taking matters into our own hands."

Speakers sought to demonstrate that populist forces on the left are prepared to exercise their muscle against the Democratic establishment, citing, for instance, an effort in Arkansas to oust moderate Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Tuesday's Democratic primary runoff.

"Progressive movements must organize independently of Democratic administrations in order to effect change," Borosage said. "That means we have to stop waiting for Obama. We have to stop taking the president's temperature. We have to stop being critics and start being actors once more."

With conservatives emboldened as they head into November's midterm elections, the progressive activists are seeking to gin up some momentum of their own. But the conference opening, which drew a few hundred people, was a far more sedate affair than a similar gathering of conservatives in February, illustrating the enthusiasm gap that threatens to hurt Democrats at the polls.

The audience leapt to its feet just once, after a speech by Green for All chief executive Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins. The Conservative Political Action Conference, by comparison, took on a festival atmosphere, with jubilant activists stomping and screaming and sensing that Republican victories were near.

Longtime labor leader Andrew L. Stern sought to change that. Stern, who recently retired as president of the Service Employees International Union, said working people needed to move off the sidelines and put pressure on the White House and Congress to enact a more worker-friendly economic agenda.

"Ordinary people are the winds of change," Stern said. "Not the lobbyists on K Street, not the think tanks with all their reports. It's people -- it's us -- that are the winds of change."

Ellis-Lamkins said it was a "mistake" for progressives who have worked hard to help elect Obama and Democratic majorities in Congress to assume that they would follow through with a progressive agenda.

"We thought that an election was a victory. What we forgot was that candidates don't deliver change," she said. "While I voted for Barack Obama and I'd vote for him again, he is not enough. When we don't push him to say that the handling of BP has been atrocious at best . . . we don't wish to discredit their leadership, but we want to raise our expectations."

By seeking bipartisanship, Huffington said, Democrats have made too many concessions on legislation. She invoked the Gulf of Mexico oil spill by saying bipartisanship resulted in lax government oversight of BP. "We are seeing bipartisanship," she said. "Washing on the shores of Louisiana every day we see more pictures of pelicans and dolphins covered in bipartisanship."


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