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Holding Obama Accountable

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After spending 2009 mobilizing grassroots support for progressive change, activists in 2010 face a new challenge: pressuring President Obama to fulfill a progressive agenda. A new approach is clearly needed, and three steps should be taken.

First, email campaigns, protests and media events must directly target Obama, rather than insulating him by attacking appointees like Rahm Emanuel, Tim Geithner or Lawrence Summers.

Second, activists must pressure progressive Senators to put their constituencies' interests ahead of Obama's political agenda.

Third, and most critically, activist groups that the Democratic Party is counting upon for money and volunteers in the 2010 midterm elections -- such as organized labor, MoveOn, and the Netroots -- must be willing to play hardball with Obama. The strategy of protecting Obama from criticism failed progressives in 2009, and will not lead the president to strongly back progressives on immigration reform, climate change, EFCA, and other key issues in 2010.

Activists Need New Strategy

After writing a piece in November 2006 urging Barack Obama to run for president, and then authoring dozens of pro-Obama articles through this fall, I know it's not easy to criticize a president you campaigned for and believed in. But we learned in 2009 that immunizing Barack Obama from the standard activist pressure tactics fails to bring progressive victories, as Obama is not the fighter for change that his campaign promoted.

But Obama's unwillingness to fight in 2009 does not mean that he will oppose progressive measures in 2010. Rather, it means activist must change their tactics and strategies toward the president.

Specifically, activists must employ what I describe in The Activist's Handbook as the "fear and loathing" approach that has long proved necessary to get most politicians to do the right thing. Activists must make Obama fear the political repercussions of not backing progressive positions, even to the extent that the president comes to "loathe" those creating such pressures.

These words will disappoint and even anger some of those who thought Obama, like FDR, would lead the struggle for progressive change. But President Obama has used personal relations with activist insiders, and the granting of "access" to previously shut out DC-based groups, to break progressive commitments, all the while avoiding much criticism from the left.

Directly Target Obama

A new activist strategy begins with directing grassroots energies away from attacking Sarah Palin, Joe Lieberman, the Republican Party, or Obama appointees, and building pressure campaigns toward the person who holds the power: the president. It's easier to raise money by targeting such popular villains, but such appeals are sent to already progressive audiences who can have far greater political impact if targeted toward influencing the president they helped elect.

The activist groups whose emails daily fill our inboxes urging specific actions and donations, or who hold regular national media events, must start focusing on the president's actions and positions. This means raising grassroots pressure on the president's lack of commitment toward a particular progressive goal, such as the slow pace of his judicial appointments, U.S. Attorney nominations, and his quietly allowing lone Republican Senators to "hold" key agency appointments, rather than the 2009 practice of constantly mobilizing against the latest falsehood from Palin or FOX News.

It's Organizing 101. Activists are trained to target the ultimate decision maker in local campaigns, so why would those seeking progressive change at the national level avoid targeting the president, with whom the buck stops?

Those arguing that pressuring Obama from the left "tears down" the President and plays into Republican hands should explain why so-called "moderate" Democrats are not subject to such accusations when they challenge Obama. And their confrontational approach to the President has prevailed time and again.

Pressure Democratic Senators

Activists must also stop giving their Senate allies a free pass.

It was striking to see the pained expressions on the faces of Senators Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, Jay Rockefeller and other robust public option backers when word emerged that the Senate was killing the public plan. I think these and other Senators got rolled by President Obama in the same way as labor unions and activist groups, wrongly believing that the President would insist on a public option in the final bill.

But now that Senators know how the Obama Administration operates, there's no excuse for their quietly allowing the President to weaken progressive legislation. And holding Obama accountable could be a matter of political survival.

For example, California's Barbara Boxer is among the Senators with a long progressive track record who faces a well-financed Republican opponent in 2010; if Boxer is not seen by constituents as fighting for progressive change, the infrequent voters they depend on to win -- particularly Latinos if they are unhappy over the immigration reform outcome -- will not be coming to the polls in November.

Labor and Progressive Constituencies

Ultimately, whether Obama is pressured to fulfill his progressive campaign pledges depends on whether such key constituency groups as organized labor, MoveOn, the Netroots, and progressive groups nationwide are willing to publicly play hardball with the President they strongly backed.

Consider labor. The AFL-CIO unions and SEIU together invested over $120 million in the November 2008 elections, and Obama and the Democratic Party are counting on labor's strong backing this November.

What if labor publicly announced some "bright line" provisions on both EFCA and immigration reform whose enactment are a condition for its support of the Democratic Party in the 2010 midterm elections? If it's fine for Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to publicly draw lines in the sand -- and on health care both were given what they demanded -- why not the labor movement?

Candidate Barack Obama regularly stated that his campaign was not about him, but rather about a new vision for America. Now activists must pressure the President to implement this vision, or else deflate the hopes for real change that Obama's election engendered among long cynical Americans.

Randy Shaw is also the author of
Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.