Exacting Change | The Nation


Exacting Change

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In the Trenches

About the Author

Robert L. Borosage
Robert L. Borosage
Robert L. Borosage is president of the Institute for America's Future.
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor and Publisher of The Nation. She is a frequent commentator on American and...

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The irony of American politics is that the right is far weaker than it appears and the left far stronger than it asserts.

Liberals are pushing a range of measures that challenge Obama administration policy.

Also by the Author

While Obama has begun to act on what the country needs, Republican obstruction refuses to pass bills and solve problems.

Talking about opportunity alone fails to address the unfairness of the current system.

Each of these initiatives rouses the concerns of powerful and deeply entrenched corporate interests. All are mobilizing for a full-scale rumble, deploying legions of Democratic lobbyists and amassing war chests for advertising and "astroturf" campaigns. The healthcare industry tops the list for spending on lobbying in 2009, reporting about $127 million in expenditures in the first three months alone. The lobby's Swiftboat operation, Conservatives for Patients' Rights, vows to spend $20 million to scare Americans about Obama's reforms.

The fight over EFCA "will be Armageddon," threatens Randel Johnson, vice president for labor policy at the US Chamber of Commerce. The National Journal reports that the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, a major business umbrella group, alone has committed $200 million to defeat EFCA.

The fierce struggle over the climate legislation is illustrative. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the climate lobbies had four lobbyists for every member of Congress at the end of last year, up more than 300 percent since 2003. The center reports that a staggering 880 groups and interests on all sides are signed up to influence the bill. The oil and coal industry spent about $76.1 million on ads in the first four months of the year, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Most of the key reforms--healthcare, energy, EFCA and immigration (but notably not finance)--have sophisticated, independent progressive coalitions driving the issue. Health Care for America Now (HCAN) enlists more than 1,000 groups, with a budget of $40 million; it is already on the air urging support in key Democratic states. The unions may spend more than $100 million supporting EFCA, but they will be outgunned several times over. The environmental community mobilizes thousands of activists and has already expended millions on advertising: together, Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club spent $28.6 million in ads over the first four months of 2009. But enviros will be outspent some ten to one in lobbying and three to one in advertising.

The progressive infrastructure built during the Bush years provides Obama with independent capacity that didn't exist in the Clinton years, from media monitoring to grassroots mobilization. Two new groups--Common Purpose Project and Unity '09--were set up and staffed by Obama campaign veterans to coordinate message and field operations in support of major administration reforms. They are complemented by the largest new operation of all, Organizing for America, the 13 million-person donor and activist list lodged at the DNC, which can flood House and Senate offices with calls and letters.


Ironically, the key targets for both the corporate and popular mobilizations are a remarkably small number of legislators. Most are Democrats--the handful of conservative "Blue Dog" and DLC representatives and their equivalents in the Senate--plus a few moderate Republican senators who aren't wedded to obstruction. House Republicans can do little but howl at the wind. The president's greatest challenge in passing reform is thus garnering support from his own party, not from the opposition.

Obama's leadership style encourages compromise: he lays out a broad vision, eloquently makes his case and invites all the stakeholders to the negotiations--paying special attention to efforts that forge common ground. For example, the climate bill used as a blueprint the plan released by the US Climate Action Partnership, which brought leading environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change together with giant companies like PepsiCo and Ford and many top energy providers.

Obama then allows Congress to work out the legislation, often counting on Pelosi to ensure that strong committee leaders drive the negotiations. White House aides, marshaled by chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, help to cut deals and build consensus backstage. Citizen groups are called upon to support the resulting legislation and to target swing legislators.

The White House mantra is, Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The president doesn't single out the Democrats standing in the way; he prefers compromise to pitched battle, particularly within his party. A senior White House aide has described Obama as a "raging minimalist," by which he means someone who believes that you should put all the parties at the table, find out what can be agreed upon and go with that.

Obama's emphasis on gaining as much consensus as possible, and his reluctance to challenge publicly the interests or legislators seeking to delay or dilute reform, has no doubt won him some support he might otherwise not have had. Corporate trade associations are seeking to shape reforms on climate and healthcare rather than to blow them up. But the emphasis on backstage compromise also weakens the president's ability to challenge the balance of forces in Congress by mobilizing public outrage. When a compromise is struck, progressives are asked to join the president in supporting it and to mute their criticisms. Passage of the recovery plan and the president's bold budget outline bear testament to that strategy. And no doubt, whatever progress is made on healthcare or energy or workers' rights will be in stark contrast to the black hole of the Bush years.

The danger is that this process may make the weak the enemy of the good. Legislated reforms always reflect the gulf between what is needed and what is possible. That gulf is very wide despite the economic crisis and the sea-change elections, because corporate lobbies still hold sway in Washington. Many Congressional liberals worry that there isn't enough push to overcome the opposition, particularly in the Senate. We could see a series of reforms with the heart cut out of them--healthcare without a good public plan, energy without strong cap-and-trade and renewable energy standards, EFCA without card check or binding arbitration--and immigration may not even make it to the table. To change that balance, the president may have to put his popularity on the line--or citizens may have to change the terms of the debate.

Compromise is inevitable. The hard question is whether the compromise opens the door to greater progress or forecloses opportunity. A weak public plan will make it hard to get healthcare expenses under control while extending care to all. Timid cap-and-trade standards won't spark the drive for renewable energy or substantially reduce carbon emissions. Without significant reform, workers' ability to organize won't improve all that much.

Moreover, the reform moment may not last long. Given the economic devastation and the wars abroad, the president's popularity is more likely to decline than to rise. Parties in power tend to lose seats in the first midterm election of a new presidency. If unemployment is still increasing next year, as seems likely, the Republican opposition could find its voice. Conservative Democrats and their corporate allies could grow bolder. And as bankers are bailed out while autoworkers get their pink slips and an increasing number of homeowners receive foreclosure notices, citizens could become disillusioned with the party in power.

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