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Bill Scher

Bill Scher

Posted: June 27, 2008 10:38 AM

Obama and Telecom Immunity: The Importance of Pushing


(Fellow HuffPosters Logan Nakyanzi Pollard and Jason Rosenbaum have shared their thoughts on the meaning of Sen. Barack Obama's decision to support the latest FISA bill. Below is my addition to the conversation, originally posted at the Campaign for America's Future blog.)

My Campaign for America's Future colleague Isaiah Poole urged Sen. Barack Obama to take the lead in fighting immunity for telecom companies that may have helped the Bush administration break surveillance laws.

I do not have high expectations.

It appears quite clear to me, from Obama's recent statement on the new surveillance bill, that he is not interested in letting this bill become a flashpoint of disagreement between himself and his presidential rival Sen. John McCain. So he is expressing reluctant support of the overall bill, he will likely vote for an amendment stripping telecom immunity, the amendment will likely fail, and the overall bill will become law.

It will be a disappointing outcome. But there are worthwhile lessons to take, as progressives prepare for a possible Obama presidency.

It's a reminder that Obama is a politician. Not in either a negative or positive sense. It's just a plain fact.

Which means that we cannot sit back and assume he, or anyone else that may become president, will simply do what we like all the time. We will always have to push.

On telecom immunity, prominent liberal bloggers joined civil libertarian organizations and pushed their hearts out. But the hard fact remains that the push did not succeed in turning intense opposition into broad opposition.

No one in the netroots deserves blame for that. It was extremely difficult to draw attention to an abuse of power issue, when most voters see economic issues more directly impacting their lives. (And the traditional media's dismissal of the telecom immunity issue didn't help.)

In turn, Obama and other Democrats don't have evidence that elevating this issue -- potentially crowding out differences on the economy, gas prices and Iraq -- is something that enough people want to make it politically worthwhile.

Is it reason to be disappointed? Yes. Is it reason to feel that those politicians cannot be presumed to always act on progressive principles? Yes.

But it's not a reason to believe grassroots voices won't be heard or can't have a major impact.

Obama -- along with former rivals John Edwards and Sen. Hillary Clinton -- was successfully pushed to adopt bolder positions on health care and global warming than Democratic politicians in the recent past. Why? Because progressives pushed, and pushed well.

When we push well, and show that there is broader public support for ideas too bold for narrow-minded Beltway elites to accept, that's when we move our nation forward.

And there is, and will be, a need to keep pushing.

For example, while Obama is calling for greater public investment in infrastructure, his proposal of $60 billion in infrastructure investment over 10 years pales in comparison to the challenge we face. My colleague Eric Lotke recently noted that our infrastructure needs $1.6 trillion to get up to snuff. Robert Borosage lamented that Obama's specific proposal "won't build many bridges, much less seed modern transit."

Obama calls for more in the area of clean energy and energy-efficiency: $150 billion over 10 years. But the Apollo Alliance reports says we need twice that amount to rapidly transition to a clean energy economy a decade from now.

There are five months left to build a crystal clear mandate that will set the table for progressive change no matter who gets elected. It's indisputable that the desire to change from eight years of failed conservatism is strong across America. But there is still more work to do to define what real change looks like.

So if there anything to take from Obama's telecom immunity move, it's that the need to push the parameters of acceptable debate is as critical and urgent as ever.

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