Two former advisers to Barack Obama's presidential campaign, famed labor organizer Marshall Ganz and urban policy expert Peter Dreier, are now publicly criticizing Obama's health care reform strategy.
In a frank op-ed in the Washington Post on Sunday, they contrasted Obama's campaign promises of organizing and confrontation with the sometimes middling approach to mobilizing health care reform:
Throughout the campaign, Obama cautioned that enacting his ambitious plans would take a fight. In a speech in Milwaukee, he said: "I know how hard it will be to bring about change. Exxon Mobil made $11 billion this past quarter. They don't want to give up their profits easily."
He explained what it would take to overcome the power of entrenched interests in order to pass historic legislation. Change comes about, candidate Obama said, by "imagining, and then fighting for, and then working for, what did not seem possible before." ... But in the battle for health-care reform, the president and his allies are ignoring his own warning. The struggle for universal medical insurance... is in trouble.
For months the president insisted that any significant reform of the health-care system include a "public option" ... Republicans have made it clear that they won't support any plan that competes with the insurance industry ... In the past few weeks, Obama has hinted that he might settle for reform without a public option, thus assuaging the Baucus caucus and the insurance industry but angering many of his progressive supporters. At the same time, Obama's readiness to compromise hasn't mollified members of the small but vocal right-wing Republican network... If the unholy alliance of insurance industry muscle, conservative Democrats' obfuscation and right-wing mob tactics is able to defeat Obama's health-care proposal, it will write the conservative playbook for blocking other key components of the president's agenda -- including action on climate change, immigration reform and updates to the nation's labor laws.
The article goes on to apportion the blame widely -- not simply knocking Obama or OFA management, but also unions, liberal advocacy organizations and "netroots groups" -- and it credits conservatives for wielding stronger organizing tactics this summer. That's an especially significant argument coming from Ganz, a progressive organizing guru who has worked with everyone from Cesar Chavez to Howard Dean to Obama, including recording an endorsement for the Illinois Senator at the inception of the presidential campaign (video below). Here's the key criticism:
Once in office, the president moved quickly, announcing one ambitious legislative objective after another. But instead of launching a parallel strategy to mobilize supporters, most progressive organizations and Organizing for America -- the group created to organize Obama's former campaign volunteers -- failed to keep up. The president is not solely responsible for his current predicament; many progressives have not acknowledged their role.
Since January, most advocacy groups committed to Obama's reform objectives (labor unions, community organizations, environmentalists and netroots groups such as MoveOn) have pushed the pause button. Organizing for America, for example, encouraged Obama's supporters to work on local community service projects, such as helping homeless shelters and tutoring children. That's fine, but it's not the way to pass reform legislation...
Meanwhile, as the president's agenda emerged, his former campaign volunteers and the advocacy groups turned to politics as usual: the insider tactics of e-mails, phone calls and meetings with members of Congress. Some groups -- hoping to go toe-to-toe with the well-funded business-backed opposition -- launched expensive TV and radio ad campaigns in key states to pressure conservative Democrats. Lobbying and advertising are necessary, but they have never been sufficient to defeat powerful corporate interests.
In short, the administration and its allies followed a strategy that blurred their goals, avoided polarization, confused marketing with movement-building and hoped for bipartisan compromise that was never in the cards. This approach replaced an "outsider" mobilizing strategy that not only got Obama into the White House but has also played a key role in every successful reform movement, including abolition, women's suffrage, workers' rights, civil rights and environmental justice. Grass-roots mobilization raises the stakes, identifies the obstacles to reform and puts the opposition on the defensive. The right-wing fringe understood this simple organizing lesson and seized the momentum. Its leaders used tactics that energized their base, challenged specific elected officials and told a national story, enacted in locality after locality.
Of course, it's easier to mobilize against something than to develop an outsider-insider strategy supporting an incumbent legislative proposal and, in the case for many Obama-friendly progressives, simultaneously trying to strengthen the proposal along the way.
MoveOn, to take one example, has been trying a two-track approach. Politically, the group has largely backed the White House on health care. Meanwhile, organizationally, MoveOn staff have been working with their members on "Public Option NOW" events. If you believe that Obama adviser who said he was "shocked and surprised" to see a progressive fallout over the public option, however, then those efforts have not been very influential on the inside track.
Finally, it does seem like the August doldrums are renewing the progressive appetite for pushing Obama -- even the House Progressive Caucus is starting to channel its inner Evan Bayh and actually threaten to withhold votes. Just as Ganz and Dreier took their strong criticisms public, there is always the prospect that many other Obama supporters may get more vocal. Michael Huttner, who heads ProgressNow, a 2-million member netroots organization focused on state issues, has a new book out this week that aims to mobilize Obama supporters into taking more concrete action to help and push the administration during this governance period. If progressive Obama agitation moves beyond a few critics and into the broader engagement of supporters around the country, well, that's the kind of mass action that Ganz and Dreier have in mind.