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The Obama Progressive Agenda: A Progress Report

Although progressives have already won two major victories – the stimulus package and the budget – and a reversal of a number of Bush anti-environment policies, most activists are focused on the troika of universal health care, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), and comprehensive immigration reform. Having asked activists across the nation over the past month about their assessment of these issues, I got a mixed – though surprisingly consistent – response.


The most optimism is toward health care, understandable since Obama and Congress already allocated over $600 billion and corporate America is now eager for a fix. EFCA is seen as more problematic, with many questioning labor’s framing of the measure around card-check rather than other more popular and equally important provisions. Hopes that comprehensive immigration reform can pass this year appear to be diminishing, though activists are gearing up for the fight. Underlying all these struggles is widespread concern that the movement-style politics that led to Obama’s victory has not emerged. Former Obama volunteers still lack a defined role in enacting the Change We Need, and activists doubt that Obama’s campaign-style appearances alone will be sufficient to win progressive victories on key issues.

It’s been a remarkable two-plus months for those whose priority is expanding public investment into health care, education, housing and other domestic programs. Progressives have made more gains in these areas than during the eight years of the Clinton Administration, with even once third-rail programs like legal services and arts and humanities getting a spending boost.

So before we discuss the tough battles ahead, let’s take a moment to recognize that the United States finally has enacted a domestic budget that seeks to address human needs. Perhaps the victory came too easily for its magnitude to be appreciated, but this is simply testament to President Obama’s brilliant framing of the budget as a necessary investment in the American people.

Universal Health Care
Progressive forces have coalesced in Health Care for America Now (HCAN), and the drive for universal health care has the broadest grassroots base of any progressive issue. And the opposition to universal health care is weaker than in 1993 and 1994, as many of the interests which torpedoed the Clinton health plan now backing some form of universal health care. A series of positive developments – from the replacement of the flawed Tom Daschle with the more progressive Kathleen Sebelius as head of Health and Human Services, to rising public discontent with corporations, to Howard Dean returning to DFA to lead a grassroots campaign for a public health care option ---adds to the factors making universal health care virtually inevitable this year.

Yes, many details must be worked out. And there is no guarantee that progressives will be thrilled with the final bill. But it sure looks like a progressive health care measure will pass, giving the political left perhaps its biggest policy victory since the Johnson Administration.

Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)
There is almost universal belief among labor activists (though few speak publicly) that framing a campaign around the right of workers to avoid secret ballot elections is not working. Meanwhile, EFCA includes several vital provisions that would resonate with the public and build support with the measure – such as binding arbitration after 90 days of negotiations, steeper employer sanctions for unfair practices, and rewriting election rules to end employer favoritism – that are being obscured by the focus on “card-check.”

Why is labor continuing to frame the EFCA debate in a way that its own base feels makes no strategic sense? It could be that labor lacks a decision-making process to change course.

SEIU’s Andy Stern is the nation’s most politically influential labor leader. But his Change to Win labor federation is disintegrating, he is in outright warfare with John Wilhelm of HERE, and he is not in a position to sit down with other union heads –particularly those with the AFL-CIO – and work out a new campaign plan.

With labor unable to reframe the EFCA campaign, Congressmember George Miller and Senator Tom Harkin will have to make the move. This will hopefully happen soon, as Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter’s recent announcement that he would not support EFCA in its current form has increased skittishness about the measure. (Of course, Specter’s vote is only relevant if 60 votes are needed to stop a filibuster – and Democrats would be smart to force a GOP filibuster on such a clear-cut workers rights issue).

Comprehensive Immigration Reform
Chances are decreasing for passage of a comprehensive legalization bill this year, which may explain why the DREAM Act was reintroduced on March 26 to provide a route to amnesty for undocumented college students. Immigrant rights activists are stepping up pressure around this issue, and are also demanding that the Obama Administration stop ICE raids.

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Two factors have complicated the passage of a legalization bill in 2009:

  • First, the massive drug wars on the Mexican border have unfortunately linked immigration with violence, even though these wars have nothing to do with U.S. immigration policy.
  • Second, increased U.S. unemployment boosts those who argue that immigrants are taking “our” jobs – even though undocumented immigrants in the construction industry have been among the biggest losers in the current economic crisis.

Have Progressives Become Spectators?
Recently, the Obama-created Campaign for America claimed it held 10,000 house parties to discuss health care. In every speaking event I did last week (which covered NYC, New Jersey, WAshington DC, and Chicago), I asked if anyone attended one of these parties, or knew someone who did.

Although the groups I addressed included union members and other activists, not a single person said they attended a meeting. I did hear from someone who did not personally attend that the Hyde Park house party (in Obama’s home neighborhood) had two people come (if my source is wrong, I’ll do correction).

Bottom line: Not enough people are being enlisted to push for the progressive measures that they worked day and night to elect Barack Obama to enact. Email alerts are not enough, and people eager to fight for change are not being given specific instructions on what to do (other than send money).

Too few groups – SEIU, US PIRG, and MoveOn – have the resources to mobilize in swing districts and states for progressive measures. This has left millions of progressive supporters on the sidelines, which is not helpful when Obama is seeking to pass the most ambitious domestic agenda since the New Deal.

Perhaps the President can generate the necessary support through his own campaign-style events. Or maybe his Organizing for America will expand its reach in the months ahead. But given the enormous pent-up demand for change, it’s sad that the talents of so many are being unused, and that enacting progressive measures are reliant upon top-down rather than bottom-up strategies for influencing public opinion.

randy shaw

Randy Shaw

So while there’s much to celebrate since Obama took office – and I did not even get a chance to discuss energy and the environment, whose activists haven’t seen so much success ever – building a movement to win the bigger battles remains a work in progress.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)

Republished with permission from Beyond Chron