The Progressive Transition--Putting Pressure on Obama

It could be a very short honeymoon for progressives who supported Obama, with all the Clinton Administration officials crowding into the cabinet. We're now talking about a transition that will calm Wall Street, deploy more troops to Afghanistan, and recruit members of Washington's permanent establishment to keep the politics of bailout and military buildup going.

What about "change" propelled by the power of small donors, a huge field operation, and the massive numbers of new voters and newly energized activists who got Obama elected?

Republicans mocked Obama for being a community organizer, and made a lot out of his brief association with ACORN. But Obama's victory was not actually a community organizing triumph. As veteran organizer Bill Fletcher Jr. put it today on Grit TV, "When I'm thinking about community organizing, I'm thinking much more about growth and training of indigenous leaders." Obama's field operation was impressive. But it was also a highly disciplined, centralized operation--and, let's not forget, the most expensive campaign in history. Obama's record-breaking contributions from Wall Street came from very identifiable, big-name donors, while his small-donor base was not organized, except for the purpose of electing him. As Fletcher puts it, "You're not beholden to people who have no collective voice."

Now, as Obama works on his transition, progressives are scrambling to work on getting that collective voice together.

"What would be wonderful is for a subset of those hundreds of thousands of people [who elected Obama] to think of themselves as candidates," says Jeff Blodgett of Wellstone Action. "And another group could work on those campaigns. And another could think about how do I really work on the issue that's important to me."

Wellstone Action is dedicated to the kind of growth and training of local community organizers and candidates that Bill Fletcher talks about. As it turns out, the community organizers are turning to the campaign as a source of energy, instead of vice versa.

Boldgett sees the excitement generated by Obama's meteoric rise as an opportunity. "That's the challenge--to continue the momentum," he says. His group is adding more trainings, and he sees a spike in interest both in progressives running for office and in groups that work on global warming, immigrant rights, and other issues.

The challenge for those groups--to put pressure on Obama--is daunting.

"This will be the fight of the millennium," says Betsy Taylor, the climate change activist who founded One Sky (www.1sky.org). She was "gratified" by Obama's talk about green jobs during the campaign, and by his "forceful" speech this week at the climate change summit in California. But, she adds, "He comes from a coal state and he hasn't figured out the science on coal"--that nothing short of a complete moratorium on coal plants will do to reverse global warming. "It's one thing to talk about targets and another thing to do it at the scale and speed that we need," she says.

Taylor doesn't worry about overstating the urgency of global warming. "It's not like any other issue," she says. "We need a massive mobilization. We need to fundamentally change direction in the next couple of years." One Sky is trying to recruit volunteers in every Congressional district and precinct to drive that message home. "We only beat global warming by creating a whole new economy--transforming every car, every appliance," she says. "I do think we have a President who can provide that kind of leadership, but he has to be pushed, and supported."

That sense of urgency may be just what the whole progressive community needs.

As peace activist Medea Benjamin put it, on her cell phone from Washington, DC, "We're in Congress right this second and it's just disgusting to see this place swarming with lobbyists. Let's not kid ourselves that the situation has changed as far as who has access. I'm sure it will be the same come January."

Benjamin notes the lack of unified progressive action on the financial crisis.

"We’ve actually done a lousy job," she says. "We're going to lose out on the most important issue, which is how does our money get spent.”

Unions, environmentalists, and citizens groups are struggling to find common ground and work together on issues like the auto industry bailout. For example, says Benjamin: "We have the head of the UAW right here and we're having an argument with him all morning about the jobs issue."

Still, after Congress leaves town and during the break before the Inauguration, activists are working to get it together. Benjamin points to teach-ins on the economy going on all over the country, and the fact that activist groups are working to form partnerships with other groups they've never worked with before.

Rudy Lopez, a senior organizer at the Center for Community Change, spoke to me from a meeting of activists who were discussing this very issue--how to push Obama.

"None of us has any illusion that he's going to say, 'OK, progressive change is on the way.' Look at some of the appointments: We see the challenges." But Lopez says community organizers are excited about the first President from a community organizing background--someone who, as he puts it, "really understands the dynamic" of organizing.

"Our view is that there is really an opportunity for Obama to be that bold, visionary leader he campaigned on," says Lopez.

He points to one constituency that may, indeed, exert some immediate pull on Obama and the Democrats in Congress-- the historic Latino vote that proved to be a significant factor in the election. "Obama and the Democrats have an opportunity to reach out to this constituency," he says. Acting early on immigration reform and passing an S-CHIP bill that "doesn't throw immigrants under the bus" are two goals Lopez mentions. As for tactics: "Many organizing entities are very intent on having a relationship with the Administration and poised to offer ideas, but also to push." By that he means big marches with hundreds of thousands of people standing on the doorstep of the White House. Which, Lopez suggests, "he won't take personally," since he knows what community organizing is all about.

Medea Benjamin takes a similarly friendly-but-firm tone on the Administration--with her trademark wry twist.

Code Pink put out a press release immediately after the election claiming Obama's victory as a victory for the peace movement, since he won in part by opposing the war in Iraq. And, as Benjamin puts it, "it was the peace movement that labeled Hillary as prowar even when she kept trying to change her image." With Hillary now up for Secretary of State, it's obvious that Obama is not exactly Dennis Kucinich.

"We're taking him at his word on the things we like, and we're moving ahead as if they are happening," Benjamin says. Thus, Code Pink rode into Washington on a "Yes We Can" caravan and delivered apple pies to the embassies of Syrian, Iran, and Bolivia. As self-styled ambassadors of goodwill, they greeted former U.S. enemies with the message, "Yes we can live in peace."

One good sign: Benjamin, who is leaving for Iran on a citizen-activist jaunt, was granted a visa for her trip, after being denied repeatedly in recent years.

"We're not so much in protest mode and more in expectations and if-we-build-it-it-will-happen mode," she says. "Who knows how long we can stay in this mode?"