11/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bent But Not Broken

While there are still plenty of DC progressive groups working with the White House on policy, in many ways relationships between the broader progressive community and the White House are frayed right now. Paul Krugman and Arianna Huffington have been writing critical columns about President Obama now for months. Bill Maher and Rachel Maddow have been giving more and more negative commentary about him on their TV programs. Much of the blogosphere has been in full scale attack mode. Keith Olbermann, among others, is raising the specter that there may be a primary against him. And all of that was before the White House failed to defend progressive hero Van Jones when Glenn Beck started to attack him, and accepted Van's resignation this weekend.

Going into tonight's big speech, the question is this: Is the relationship between Obama and the progressive community broken or just bent?

Maybe it's because I'm an optimist. Or maybe it's because I read a lot of history and know how mad abolitionists got at times with Lincoln, how upset labor leaders got sometimes with FDR, or how frustrated King and John Lewis frequently were with the Kennedys. But I am still hopeful this relationship can be repaired so that progressives and Obama can work together to get the big changes Obama promised done, because history also shows that without a constructive working relationship between progressive movements and a President, big changes don't get done. The good news is that we are only nine months into Obama's term, and Presidents can change direction and make up a lot of ground when they decide they need to. I know that after NAFTA, the weak ending to the health care fight, and the 1994 election, the relationship between Clinton and the Democratic base was pretty rocky. But the combination of a lot of behind the scenes work and Clinton's critical decision to stand up to Gingrich on the 1995 budget fight repaired the relationship, helping Clinton win big in the 1996 re-election campaign.

I know that if this White House understands the importance of the relationship, they can reunite the Democratic party. That's a big if: they don't always act like they get it. But Barack Obama is a pretty smart politician, and I still have hope.

A speech alone, though, will not change the dynamics - just like the speech alone won't get serious health care reform done. The number one thing that will cause many things to be forgiven is to show progressives that Obama will fight for and deliver legislation for true health reform, legislation that will reign in the power of the insurance industry and- as Obama likes to say- keeps them honest.

As the anger over Van Jones over the weekend showed, this breach is not just about health care. Here are some other thoughts I would suggest to President Obama:

1. I know the Afghanistan situation is incredibly complex, and I don't know what Obama is going to decide. But whatever is done, even if you do something that will make a lot of us unhappy and put more troops in, give us a clear signal that there is an exit plan and some kind of timeline here. Progressives in Congress have been pushing for legislative language on developing an exit plan, and doing that simple thing would go a long way to giving us hope that you get our concerns, that we are not going to be stuck in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

2. Okay, Van Jones is gone. We're disappointed, but now is the time to redouble your efforts on building a green economy. As soon as health care is over, a major push for millions of new green jobs would make us believe that Van's dream is not dead.

3. When the banking reform legislation comes to the forefront, be willing to fight hard for it, and be willing to take Wall Street head on to get it done. If we see you really fighting for us against the big special interests who have wrecked this economy, it would go a long way.

4. Reach out in a real way to the broad progressive community, Mr. President. Now that Van's gone, appoint some other strong progressive to the administration, in addition to the good people you have already like Melody Barnes, Patrick Gaspard, Jared Bernstein Hilda Solis, and Phil Schiliro. And when progressives challenge you, don't let your staff delete them from invite lists to White House events, or disparage them to reporters: invite people from the progressive community who have constructive criticism in for honest discussions.

One final note here: as I've written before, this is not just on Obama. Progressives should try to work in good faith with the White House. One thing I know from my life in politics: if you assume the worst about people, including politicians, you usually will get it. I know that whenever I write anything nice about the President, I get commenters disparaging me, saying Obama is hopeless and awful. But assuming Obama is awful on everything is dumb politics, because if we want to get anything done to further our issues on the federal level in the next three to seven years, it will only be through this White House. Even if you don't like Obama, we are stuck with him, and the White House is stuck with us, so if you want progress, we have to figure out how to work together.

There may come a time when the relationship between progressives and Obama is irretrievably split. It happened with LBJ over Vietnam and Carter over economics and health care. But we're a ways from that point, and both sides ought to try and repair what is bent, because as you may recall - the split with LBJ gave us Nixon, and the split with Carter gave us Reagan. That is one part of history I definitely don't want to repeat.

Tonight's speech will be a very big moment, not just for passing health care reform, but for moving forward or backward on repairing a relationship a little too bent and bruised for the sake of anyone wanting to change the country for the better. Hopefully, it will be a speech progressives can rally behind. After the speech, though, the real work begins, and it would be a lot better if we were all working together.