Activists Rallying to Ensure Obama Administration Brings Change

by Randy Shaw on July 7, 2009

In recent weeks, President Obama and key Senators have expressed strong support for a public health care option, comprehensive immigration reform has become a front-burner issue, and the House passed what is likely to become the nation’s most far-reaching clean energy bill. While the Obama Administration has been justifiably criticized for delaying the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), much of the President’s far-reaching progressive agenda appears realizable before year’s end. Why are the usual barriers to progressive change falling? Because, as in the 1930’s, we have grassroots movements who are pushing a sympathetic President to the left. I wrote on May 19 that former community organizer Barack Obama would challenge entrenched interests only where he was supported by grassroots activism. Well, health care, immigrant rights, environmental and gay rights activists are doing a terrific job, and we will have these activists to thank when long overdue progressive legislation in these areas is enacted.

It took a few months for progressive activists to rev up their engines, but progress is now humming along well. While victory is not assured, consider how activists have shifted the momentum in their favor in recent weeks:

Health Care: Public Option a Must

It was only a few short weeks ago that chances for meaningful health care reform appeared on the decline. The combination of opposition from Montana’s Max Baucus and Congressional Budget Office estimates that greatly exceeded Obama’s left Republicans and the punditry believing we could have the 1993 health proposal implosion all over again.

But instead of deferring to conventional wisdom, activists stepped up. They were helped by Howard Dean issuing a fiery defense of the public option, and groups like MoveOn and HCAN urging the grassroots to pressure wavering Democrats.

President Obama responded to this growing pressure by announcing his own strong support for the public option, and activists on websites like began pressure campaigns against North Carolina’s newly elected Democratic Senator Kay Hagan, which soon got her to switch to supporting the public option.

On last Sunday’s Face the Nation, New York Senator Chuck Schumer said the following:

“But make no mistake about it, the President is for this strongly. There will be a public option in the final bill, some form of it. And hopefully Chuck Grassley and I and others can come to an agreement on how that should work. We want it to be a fair level playing field, but you need something to keep the big boys honest. And the only thing that really is out there is a public option. We don’t trust the private insurance companies left to their own devices and neither do the American people. Seventy percent of the American people support a public option.”

I know many progressives who are uneasy about Schumer, primarily due to his often running interference for Wall Street. But Schumer is a very, very savvy politician who would not stake out such a public position on the public option if he were not certain he could deliver.

And he and the Democrats will deliver – thanks to grassroots pressure.

Immigration Reform: Its Time Has Come

Following Obama’s inauguration, conventional wisdom had immigration reform being pushed back to 2010 if not longer. Rahm Emanuel’s oft-repeated quote that it represented the “third rail” of politics bolstered the assumption that Democrats had too much on their plate in 2009 to get “bogged down” in the emotional politics of immigration reform this year.

But at the UNITE HERE convention last week, Illinois Congressmember Luis Gutierrez announced that he expected comprehensive immigration reform to become law by this Christmas. Gutierrez, who has been Obama’s point man on immigration, addressed all of the claims for delaying reform, and insisted that the President, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi all agreed that a bill could and should pass this year.

The reason for this expedited timeline is simple: the ever expanding immigrant rights movement refused to accept further delay, and pressed Obama and Democratic leaders for quicker action. Add the fact that polls show overwhelming support for comprehensive reform, and presto! – Harry Reid has announced that he is clearing the October calendar for a Senate vote on the new legislation.

Mobilizing for Clean Energy

It’s rather astonishing how there can be so much grassroots pressure for clean energy legislation without it drawing much attention in the traditional media, or even the general circulation progressive blogosphere. This explains why a climate change bill that most pundits thought was either dead for 2009, or unlikely to get to the Senate this year, now appears on the fast track for passage.

Groups like the Sierra Club and Environment America do not prioritize getting publicity, and even if they did it might make little difference; after all, environmental issues, including global warming, were almost an after-thought in the 2008 Presidential Debates.

Yet with industry in an all-out blitz against the American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R. 2454/2998), and with pundits suggesting that the measure’s cost made it politically untenable, the bill narrowly passed the House on June 26 and appears headed for Senate passage. President Obama immediately announced that he wanted to sign a clean energy bill this year, which would hand environmentalists a major victory on their top legislative priority.

DOMA Pressure Builds

As my colleague Paul Hogarth wrote on June 15, the Justice Department’s decision to file a legal brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act “on the merits” set off a firestorm in the gay community. It has prompted a barrage of editorials and articles criticizing Obama’s failure to initiate action to repeal DOMA, as he pledged to do in his campaign.

This activism is having an impact. While the sheer volume of other major issues may prevent its repeal in 2009, Obama is on the defensive around DOMA and knows he must act. He may wait for the repeal of Prop 8 in November 2010, but he knows that activists will not give him a pass on this issue.

Congressmember Gutierrez noted that he is a better politician because his wife tells him when he’s going astray, and that President Obama also needs those who care about him most to keep him on course. Activists have been following this strategy, and must stay the course as the legislative process gets stickier in the months ahead.

Randy Shaw discusses how to keep politicians accountable in The Activist’s Handbook

Filed under: Archive