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Progressive Activists: The Idealists

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Four years ago, on the day Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, the world seemed full of possibilities -- particularly for the people who spend their careers trying to make the world a better place.

Advocates for economic fairness, gay rights, civil liberties, the environment and campaign finance reform were filled with hope for momentous change.

They weren’t just celebrating the end of eight years of deregulatory disaster, constant war, growing inequality and state-sanctioned torture under the Bush administration. They were responding to Obama’s explicit commitment to such key progressive goals as closing Guantanamo, repealing the Bush tax cuts for the rich, capping carbon emissions and introducing comprehensive immigration reform.

“Like much of the progressive world, I was incredibly excited,” said Deepak Bhargava, who runs the Center for Community Change, a group founded 44 years ago to honor Robert F. Kennedy and devoted to empowering poor and minority communities.

He hosted a party at his house on election day. “There were calls and hugs and cheers and tears,” he recalled.

Gay activists like Americablog editor John Aravosis were elated. “With Democrats controlling the presidency and the Congress? And gay-friendly at the same time? We actually thought a ton was
going to get done,” he said.

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Editor of Americablog John Aravosis (Photo by Stephen Voss)

Even government watchdogs were optimistic. “We had a president who had been articulating a priority on whistleblower protection, government transparency and contractor reform — the meat and potatoes issues that we care about the most,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight.

“It seemed very plausible that many of the things we’d been working for would come to pass in his presidency,” said Lisa Gilbert, then a lobbyist on money and politics issues for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and now director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

Four years later, however, progressive activists from all corners have savored far fewer victories than they had anticipated, and licked many more wounds. They are chastened by the reality that Obama is a politician, not an activist. They are humbled by the profound grip that money has on the Democratic party, as well as Republicans. And perhaps more than anything, they have learned that if you don’t push a president hard, you don’t get the best out of him. Given the chance, they won’t make the same mistake twice.

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Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch (Photo by Stephen Voss)

THE PATH TO HEARTBREAK

Even at the beginning, some Cassandras of the public-interest community — particularly those who’d been around longer — were skeptical that Obama would deliver the change he had promised.

Nan Aron, the longtime president of the Alliance For Justice, which advocates for reshaping the judiciary in a more progressive direction, had learned during the Clinton years that Democrats can behave very differently from Republicans once they seize power.

They’re not as aggressive, she said — especially on many of the issues she cares about most deeply. And Obama’s slogans didn’t persuade her otherwise. “There was no ‘audacity of hope’, with respect to the work that we do,” she said. “I was afraid that with the economy and health care consuming all the political energy, our issues were going to be sent to the back of the line.

“I told friends when he was elected: ‘I’m just counting the moments until my heart’s broken,’” Aron said.

As it turned out, heartbreak came faster for some than for others.

For the gay community, the elation ended abruptly when Obama invited evangelical pastor Rick Warren, an outspoken supporter of Proposition 8, the anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative in California, to give the invocation at his inauguration.

“It was unfathomable that he would pick this right-wing bigot,” Aravosis said. “I had friends who didn’t even come to the inauguration.”

Aravosis remembered thinking to himself: “We’re totally screwed. If he’s willing to do this to us, then what else is possible?” Now, he says, “I think that to some degree, that was totally prescient.”

For supporters with other interests, Obama’s earliest political appointees were a dismal sign of what was to come.

Less than three weeks after the election, Obama announced that his economic team would be led by two consummate financial insiders: Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers.

“Policy is personnel, and you bring in these people, and for me the handwriting was on the wall,” said Jeff Faux, the founder of the Economic Policy Institute and one of many progressives who had hoped Obama would hold Wall Street accountable for the financial crisis and end three decades of economic policy that favored the super-rich over the middle class. “My heart started to sink.”

The first three days of Obama’s presidency began boldly, with the president signing a series of executive orders and memos that seemed to almost reverse the polarity of the executive branch after eight years of the Bush administration. There were new orders on transparency and open government, on ethics for political appointees and forbidding the hiring of lobbyists. Obama banned torture and vowed to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But on the fourth day, the White House also issued a waiver to permit William Lynn, a lobbyist for defense industry giant Raytheon, to become deputy secretary of defense, circumventing the new ban on hiring lobbyists. Brian and her colleagues at the Project on Government Oversight were horrified. “We were: ‘WHAT?’,” she said.

It turned out to be only the first of many waivers for corporate lobbyists, making a mockery of the lobbyist ban, which nevertheless still had the unintended consequence of making it nearly impossible for public-interest lobbyists to move into the administration.

Gay activists who had campaigned for Obama without reservation increasingly felt stabbed in the back. When supporters asked in early January whether the administration would get rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military’s ban on openly gay soldiers, incoming press secretary Robert Gibbs famously answered with one word: “Yes.”

“That one-word answer turned into a lot of mumbles after that,” Aravosis recalled. After just a few weeks in office, Obama punted the matter to a Pentagon working group, which was given a year to study the matter.

Then another blow: In June 2009, the Obama administration continued the Bush administration’s legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Obama had promised to repeal it.

“You’ve got to be on the right side of this, and they were on the wrong side,” Aravosis said. “The shit hit the fan.”

By November, Aravosis and other gay activists launched a “don’t ask, don’t give” campaign. They vowed not to donate another penny to the Democratic National Committee or the Obama campaign until Obama kept his promises to the gay community.

For those hoping for an expansion of government regulations protecting health, safety and the environment after eight years of devastating retreats, Obama’s selection of Cass Sunstein to lead the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs was nothing short of a betrayal.

Sunstein was an accomplished intellectual in law and behavioral economics, and one of Obama’s old University of Chicago Law School colleagues. But his approach to regulation was skeptical, not activist.

Watching Obama’s acceptance speech in Chicago on election night “gave me goose bumps,” said Rena Steinzor, president of the pro-regulation Center for Progressive Reform. But when Sunstein was appointed, “that’s when I got upset,” she said.

Sunstein proceeded to delay, micromanage beyond recognition or simply scrap dozens of ambitious rules to protect people and the environment. He and Obama both started talking about the dangers of excessive regulation rather than the desperate need to re-regulate in an era of financial implosions and massive oil spills.

Steinzor saw the administration’s approach to regulation as an obvious attempt to curry favor with deep-pocketed corporate interests. Its ultimate expression, she said, was when Obama succumbed to a massive lobbying campaign by the energy industry on September 2, 2011, and blocked his own EPA’s science-based proposal to reduce smog.

“He was going back on a campaign promise that could have saved thousands of lives,” Steinzor said. Obama’s 2008 campaign platform explicitly stated that he would “fight for continued reductions in smog and soot” and “listen to his scientific advisors on air quality standard.” Combine that with other failures to protect the public and the environment, and Steinzor’s prognosis was very bleak.

She predicts “tremendous harm” ahead. “There will be code red days — many, many of them — in the inner cities. Explosions in the Gulf. Collapsing mines. Fatal catastrophes at chemical plants and refineries. Young teenagers succumbing to heat stroke and worse in the fields. Poisoned food from China.”

Now she looks back at her hopes on election day and feels naïve. “It’s embarrassing to me,” she said. “What did he really say or do that gave us a reason to be so optimistic?”

‘THEY WERE COMPLETELY SHUT OFF’

On many issues, public-interest advocates felt the Obama administration took their support for granted, while ignoring their concerns.

From the summer of 2009 to March 2010, the Obama administration focused nearly exclusively on passing a health care bill. Technically speaking, the Affordable Care Act was a win for progressives.

“I basically regard it as a tremendous triumph, having gotten legislation through a Congress that, while Democratic, was by no means progressive, and amid huge resistance from the Tea Party,” said Deepak Bhargava, the community activist.

But the White House political staff casually sacrificed key elements that the public-interest community supported — most notably, a “public option” that would have provided a government-run alternative to private insurance companies. “The process was tremendously dispiriting in parts,” Bhargava said.

Idealists are, by definition, never satisfied with the real world. “This guy can’t do everything I had hoped,” said Rashad Robinson, who runs the civil rights group ColorOfChange.

“Presidents of the United States are not activists.”

Obama was a community organizer once, “but that was years and years ago,” Robinson said. To the kind of people who run for elected office and win, compromise is not a dirty word.

And yet Robinson is adamant that on health care, Obama was too quick to give up. “It felt like we compromised too early,” he said. More energy on the left might have strengthened Obama’s bargaining position, Robinson said, and led to better deals with Congress.

But the White House had stifled its left flank. At an August 2009 strategy session, for instance, then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel famously called liberal groups who wanted to pressure conservative Democrats to support Obama’s bill “ fucking retarded.”

What infuriated Faux the most, he said, was “the savage way that the White House went after single-payer people.” Single-payer advocates favored a single insurance pool run by the government, instead of forcing people to buy insurance from private companies. That idea was deeply unpopular with Republicans, conservative Democrats and insurance companies.

“OK, I can understand Barack Obama sitting in the White House and saying we’ll never get single-payer through,” Faux said. “But the White House went after them! They were not allowed to testify. They were completely shut off.”

“You need somebody on your extreme in order to get a reasonable compromise,” he said. “The Republicans understand that. They let their crazies go wild.”

For Bhargava, the low point of Obama’s first term came in a meeting in December 2009 that included Summers and Geithner, in which progressive groups made the argument for a second stimulus. By then it had become increasingly clear that the first $800 billion stimulus — a good chunk of which had gone into anti-poverty programs — wasn’t going to be enough to fully revive the economy and bring unemployment to anywhere near acceptable levels.

But the White House gave the progressives the brush-off. A second stimulus was a political nonstarter, Summers and Geithner told them — it would never pass, and therefore Obama would never propose it.

“Honestly I found it pretty depressing,” Bhargava said, “because essentially we were hearing back that there was nothing Washington was going to do about 20 percent unemployment in communities of color.”

Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address exposed yet more breaches with the progressive community. “Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same,” Obama said. Wrong, said Faux.

“If there’s anything that is not true, it’s that! In hard times, the federal government’s the only guy left who can spend money,” said Faux. Obama clearly understands that, Faux said, so his statement was nothing but pandering to Republicans.

While listing his goals for the forthcoming year in his 2010 State of the Union address, Obama barely even mentioned the topic of immigration reform. During the campaign, he had promised to introduce a comprehensive bill. What he did, instead, was increase deportations to record levels.

“The immigration piece was extremely frustrating,” Bhargava said. “That was the moment when it became clear that this wasn’t perhaps going to be a big priority before the midterms.”

Civil libertarians have also felt slighted. “I think in the area of national security, there has been widespread disappointment,” said Aron. “I think the growth of the national security state is worrisome, and it’s an area in which there’s been very little public debate.”

Activists assumed Obama would be more assertive in rolling back the Bush administration’s excesses, she said. But Greg Craig, the White House counsel who championed Obama’s campaign promises about closing Guantanamo and trying terror suspects in federal court, was driven out in less than a year, clearing the way for the White House to make important legal and national security calls on purely political grounds.

Obama’s political advisers unashamedly argued against expending political capital on rolling back Bush’s torture and detention policies. And although Obama has never been pressed to explain his conflicted position on civil liberties and human rights issues, the widespread assumption is that he didn’t want to alienate the intelligence community.

For whatever reason, Obama announced that he would be “looking forward, not back” and not prosecuting Bush administration officials for their involvement in authorizing the torture of suspected terrorists.

“If you do not hold accountable prior officials for their acts, then you have not set the bar any higher,” Aron said. “And if a Republican is elected it’s back to the same old ways, and that’s very dangerous.”

The nadir, for Aron, came on February 19, 2010, when a top Department of Justice official essentially whitewashed a critical report on the conduct of “torture memo” authors John Yoo and David Bybee.

“It basically meant that they had turned their back on a community of human rights and civil liberties activists who represented constituencies on both sides of the aisle,” Aron said. “That was a very dreary day.”

THE PRESIDENT NEEDS A PUSH

Obama himself acknowledged his failure to fulfill some of his promises at an Univision town hall in Miami in late September. “I think that I’ve learned some lessons over the last four years, and the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside,” he said. “You can only change it from the outside.”

Obama went on to talk about the need to pressure Congress. But the record clearly shows that pressuring the president is also a key part of the equation.

After Obama was elected, the mass movement that had put him in office essentially disintegrated. “Everyone sort of put all their hopes and dreams in that basket,” Robinson said. People went back home and figured Obama would take care of everything. “There was not a lot of early pushing of the administration,” he said.

Later on, however, on those occasions that progressive groups were able to mobilize their supporters again, they often saw results.

After months of pressure and protests from the gay community, for instance, Obama finally started working the phones on “don’t ask, don’t tell” and signed the repeal into law on December 22, 2010.

A few months later, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Obama had decided that DOMA was unconstitutional, and had instructed the Justice Department not to defend the statute in court any more.

And in May 2012, Obama said he supported gay marriage.

“I’m fine now,” Aravosis said. “In the end what he did was huge. We had to push extremely hard, and I didn’t enjoy that, but in the end we got more than enough for me to support the man for reelection.”

Obama’s waffling on the Keystone XL tar-sands oil pipeline during the summer of 2011 turned out the be the issue that finally drove environmentalists into the streets, including two large protests outside the White House in August and November of that year.

“I think the community came together really well to say: Look, we’re drawing the line right here, and we need to see good policy from this point forward,” said Phil Radford, who heads Greenpeace U.S.A.

In January, Obama denied a permit for the pipeline, which would have linked a vast oil deposit in Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. The lesson was clear. “It really made people realize that you need to push the president to be great,” Radford said.

With comprehensive immigration reform legislation evidently off Obama’s agenda, immigration activists switched gears. “We launched a campaign to really push the administration to use its executive authority to protect immigrants,” Bhargava said.

The biggest push was by and for “Dreamers” — undocumented young people who were brought to the U.S as children, and who would be granted a conditional path to citizenship under the proposed bill known as the Dream Act. Dreamers outed themselves, committed acts of civil disobedience and led protests.

Unable to get the bill through Congress, Obama nevertheless announced on June 15, 2012, that he had ordered a stop to deportations of the Dreamers.

“That was a huge high,” Bhargava said, “and it actually spoke to me of the lesson of the last four years which is that politics has to meet social movements for us to get good outcomes.”

Some activists remain hopeful that Obama will embrace their causes more enthusiastically in a second term, since he will be thinking more about his legacy and not about getting reelected.

“I’m optimistic that the banner will be taken back up on a lot of these issues,” Lisa Gilbert said.

And certainly, despite their disappointments, public-interest advocates still see Obama as much more promising than GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“I’m not actually entertaining the thought at the moment,” said Bhargava.

“It’s the fear that’s driving me to tell whoever I can: However [much] you’re disappointed in Obama, the alternative right now is far worse,” said Faux.

But even if Obama is reelected, the past four years have taught public-interest advocates a lesson. “What we’re all going to have to do over the next four years is organize and mobilize,” said Robinson.

“Sometimes we need to relearn these lessons,” said Aron. “Obama is not going to be the hero. If work needs to be done, we need to do it. We need to be the heroes in our story.”

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.