7 Days in America: Obama and Progressives -- The Start of a Beautiful Relationship?

Mark Green is president of Air America Media and co-editor this month of Change for America.

We're the dog that caught the car.

Now that a progressive, urban, black constitutional law professor is the president, what should be the relationship of progressive advocates who supported him? That was the topic of a Nation magazine-Air America colloquium at NYU this past week with speakers like Katrina vanden Heuvel, Eli Pariser of MoveOn, author Bill Greider, among others.

Their rough collective conclusion -- and also that of messers Nadler, Reagan & Conason on 7 Days in America -- be neither an amen corner nor surrender to oppositional habits (or what Bob Shrum colorfully called "the battered liberal syndrome").

While Obama's past and positions -- and Inaugural Address -- cannot be seriously doubted as anything other than progressive overall, that doesn't mean that all his policies will be. "Politics is the art of the possible," and however great his commitment and skills, he's a politician operating in a political context.

Here three comments stand out, one very well known and the two less so. FDR famously said to Labor Secretary Francis Perkins, who was presenting him with major labor law reforms, I'm for them but now make me do it. And a then vibrant labor movement pressured the White House to do what was right and what appeared popular.

Then there's an observation of former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson,who told me something in the 1960s that's stuck with me since: "the way to keep government upright is to lean on it from all sides." Last, at our colloquium, Pariser reminded all that "Obama didn't create the movement, the movement created the space for Obama to run and win."

2008-09-20-airamericalogo.jpgSo if, say, big business lobbies are pressuring President Obama to backtrack on his pledge to enact The Labor Free Choice Act, interested unions must push back hard. If generals should pressure President Obama to slow walk our withdrawl from Iraq or relabel some battalions as other than combat so they can stay behind, the anti-war movement should vigorously speak up. And when I was pushed by Rachel Maddow last night on her MSNBC show to criticize the President for allowing some lobbyists into his government when his pledge was to exclude them all, I did say that Obama had not kept his strict pledge and should say so.

But I added the truths that a) he had the most strict lobbying-conflicts policies ever, b) candidates usually campaign in black and white absolutes and then occasionally have to modify themselves when they win (Clinton on Haitian refugees and middle class tax cuts), c) it was sloppy for Politico and the Washington Post to simply list all Obama appointees who were "lobbyists" as if they were all global warming deniers controlling environmental policy at EPA (as happened under Bush) and ignore the differences between commercial lobbyists and public interest/not-for-profit "lobbyists" like Melody Barnes previously of the Center for American Progress, d) Obama should at the very least publicly explain the exigencies of any waivers (like a Raytheon lobbyist as #2 at Defense) and then insist on very public recusals from areas of direct conflict, and e) we should be careful not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

In other words, when we have a president who doesn't invade the wrong country and aim us toward a depression -- and who's 90% progressive while using moderate, calming, non-partisan language -- let's remember how we have to hang together...or hang separately. But let's also on a case by case basis make sure that we "lean" on him when the facts warrant so he can be as thoughtful a progressive leader as feasible toward fulfillment of a progressive realignment in America.


MARK GREEN: There's a debate over Obama's bipartisanship. The Sirota-Kuttner school argue that it's a waste of time since the Republicans will never agree with him so why dilute good bills? On the other hand, Obama looks like a non-ideological, fair-minded big president by reaching out? What do you think?

REP. JERRY NADLER: First of all, remember that this was his campaign pledge. During the entire campaign he was saying: "We're not Republicans, we're not Democrats, we're Americans. We're going to do this on a post-partisan basis". He's doing exactly what he promised to do. And it's hard to criticize someone for doing exactly what he promised to do on the basis of which the American people elected him. Having said that, I'm personally not a great fan of bipartisanship with the current Republican party because I don't think they reciprocate, in certainly the House they didn't. Maybe we'll see a lot of Republican votes in the Senate for an intelligent, well-crafted deal, and maybe we won't. If we don't, then perhaps, after it passes the Senate almost exclusively with Democratic votes, maybe we can reshape it and improve it after finding out and showing that we couldn't get Republican votes for a reasonable package.

GREEN: Were Republicans shrewd or suicidal in their vote?

NADLER: Well, that depends on what happens in the future. We have now passed an $819 billion dollar bill for economic recovery. We also passed, albeit under the last presidency but we're spending it now, a $700 billion dollar bill to deal with the bank failures. If, in fact, the economy really improves, and improves faster than people who are very pessimistic about it think it will, this will be suicidal for the Republicans. If the economy doesn't improve, if the economy, come the election of next year, is still at 7.8% unemployment, as it may well be, then the Republicans are going to say: "Look! You threw a trillion and a half dollars at the economy, we told you it was wasted money, its been a catastrophe, vote for us!" And a lot of people will.

GREEN: How should our progressive community act with new progressive president?

NADLER: We should be broadly supportive of our president, because he's broadly going in the directions that we want him to go. We won an election for a change, literally, in both senses of the word. He's a fantastic person and he wants to go in the right direction. How progressive he'll be depends on a lot of things... You must have pressure from the left. There will be plenty of pressure from the right and from the center. The Democratic party is not a left-wing party, it's a broad party. There has to be pressure in the administration from the left even to get them to do what they want to do.

GREEN: You're a leader on the issue of pursuing possible prosecutions of law violations at the highest levels of the past administration. Why?

NADLER: Well, I think both are in order. You know, I wrote a letter to the attorney general, both to Gonzalez and then again to Mukasey, saying that it was their duty to appoint special prosecutors to investigate, first, the crimes committed by illegal, warrentless wiretapping, and then all the torture questions. There's going to be very little choice. They're going to have to have a special prosecutor soon enough despite all the political considerations. Because the attorney general designate, Eric Holder, testified at his confirmation hearing that waterboarding is torture, which everybody always agreed to before the Bush people came along. Former Vice-President Cheney got on television around the same time and said: "I participated in OK'ing the waterboarding". Now the Convention against Torture, which is a treaty in which the United States is a signatory, which makes it the supreme law of the land, says that any state that has reason to suspect that torture was committed MUST, at a minimum, set up a formal investigation and its appropriate prosecution. We are legally bound, under the Convention against Torture, to investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute cases of torture. The attorney general has now said torture occurred.

Interview audio can be found at airamerica.com


MARK GREEN: Ron, can you think back to your father's first week as president. How did it comp;are to this past week's excitement and support?

RON REAGAN: Well, I think there are similarities. You had a sense back in the 80's that there was some sort of political, possibly cultural, tectonic shift underway, that of course my father benefited from. You see that now. But I think it's important to note, too, that the Democrats that my father first had to start dealing with are not the same breed of animal that the Republicans Obama has to deal with in '09. There were ideological/political differences, of course, but you're now dealing with party leaders who, I think, really care less about the good of the country than their own political futures and their own rather narrow ideology.

GREEN: Obama has struck a tone of bipartisanship but his policies have been distinctly liberal. Is this a shrewd tactic, or just his nature?

JOE CONASON: Well, I think it's him and his tactic. It's how he has operated from the beginning of his campaign, which is to reframe liberal and progressive policies as a move to the center. As bipartisan. As something that you can't oppose if you're sensible -- and all the attacks on liberal and progressive policies from the right are now consigned to old politics and debates that we don't want to have anymore. What Obama called in the inaugural address: "childish things". And the public is ready for this because the conservatives cleared the groundwork by their failure. They left a scorched earth with their ideology.

GREEN: Is this not a huge bet by Democrats regarding the economy?

CONASON: Well, Republicans could say that if they had an idea, but they don't. Except the old tax cut idea, and I think that's going to be hard to sell as an alternative to Obama. You know, the New Deal was the beginning of the Democratic realignment and, as I'm sure you know because we've been through a lot of this history recently, the recovery was not complete despite the fact that Roosevelt took some heroic measures. He made some errors after four years in office, and the economy started to retract again before we finally got into war mobilization. And yet, the Democrats continued to dominate because the Republicans had no ideas, and it was clear that the President was doing his best. I think Obama is going to have a long string to run out here because the other side doesn't have much to say.

GREEN: In the past month three governors have appointed new senators -- and there have been problems in each case, most obviously in Illinois. Should states return to a strict reading of the Constitution that there should be special elections in each case?

CONASON: There don't seem to be any problems where they do have special elections for these kinds of things. There hasn't been a huge scandal or issue with solving this problem through democratic means. Where, on the other hand, we have those places where the appointment process is in place and sometimes it works OK, and in other times its been a disaster like we've seen recently. So, it seems to me that the election process wins just by virtue of being more functional and efficient.