Are Obama and progressives on the outs?

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

There's a tension between the Obama administration and the progressive movement, but it's not the one mainstream media have been describing or that the White House seems to perceive.

Last week's America's Future Now conference in Washington prompted numerous stories about "demoralized activists" directing their anger at the president and Democratic Party leadership. Dana Milbank's June 9 column was among those that promoted the "liberals eat their own" storyline. He wrote: "For 17 months, anger at President Obama and congressional Democrats has been pooling on the left. On Tuesday morning, it spilled onto the floor of an Omni Shoreham ballroom and splashed all over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi."

Yet what's happening on the left isn't the equivalent of the anti-incumbent anger on the right. Most progressives support Obama and want his agenda to succeed. And although Pelosi may have been bushwacked by a disability-rights group last week, she was celebrated by most of the conference attendees for her ability to forge a majority for hard votes.

At the same time, progressives have come to a realization. What we see, some 500 days into the Obama administration, is a president obstructed by a partisan Republican opposition, powerful entrenched corporate interests, and a minority of corrupt or conservative Democrats. The thinking is that if progressives organize independently and forge smart coalitions, building a mass movement for reform with a moral compass that can transcend left-right divisions, we may be able to push Obama beyond the limits of his own politics, overcome the timid incrementalism of the establishment Democratic Party and counter the forces of money and power that are true obstacles to change. As Arianna Huffington has said, "Hope is not enough. . . . We need a 'Hope 2.0' that depends not on what President Obama or other politicians say or do but on what we as progressives do."

That's what key progressive groups -- Labor, netroots activists and others -- were trying to do in supporting a primary challenger to Democratic Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln. But the Obama administration, which had endorsed Lincoln, apparently misinterpreted the progressive position as a threat from its base. The White House political operation turned prickly. And after Lincoln prevailed (with massive aid from establishment Democrats), anonymous White House operatives called reporters to trash organized labor for flushing "$10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise."

Actually, the point of the exercise was that those opposing Obama's reform agenda will not get a free pass. And there will be more efforts like it. To name a few: Labor will continue to devote resources to accountability primaries in several states this year, MoveOn will be campaigning to counter corporate influence, and the NAACP, SEIU and the Center for Community Change are organizing a march for jobs in October.

This agitating role isn't a new one for the progressive movement. Progressives organized a remarkable mass movement seeking to stop the Iraq war before it began. They built a counterweight in the blogosphere to challenge the mainstream media and the right. They created the coalition that beat Bush on Social Security. They gave Democrats their voice on Iraq, energy and health care that helped to take back Congress. And they inspired a junior senator from Illinois to think that something was moving with such strength that he might run and win the presidency.

Now, with resistance imperiling the Obama's change agenda, there is an understanding that it is time for progressives to mobilize independently once more. It doesn't matter whether you think Obama has done the best that he can or that he has compromised too easily. What's important is to alter the balance of power. And that means recruiting and mobilizing to unleash new energy into the debate.

Renewed energy should bolster, not weaken reform efforts. Pundits prattle about an "enthusiasm gap" in this year's elections. But progressives can help Democrats find the voice they need to avoid debilitating losses this fall. And by challenging the limits of the current debate, progressives can open political space for the fights that need to happen to show working Americans that Democrats are fighting for them.

The tension between Obama and the progressive movement isn't a threat to the president. Rather, it may be needed to save him.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post. She also sits on the board of the Campaign for America's Future, which sponsored the America's Future Now conference.

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