When the notarization on foreclosures issue suddenly flared up over the last 24 hours, my heart sank. Just as regular homeowners were starting to get some legal traction to fight back against fraud and predatory lending by big banks, it seemed, some bank lobbyist had managed to sneak something through in the dead of night that would screw people over again. It was Washington at its worst: the bank lobbyists in control, and Congress asleep at the wheel.
But then, that most delightful and rare of Washington moments happened: the system worked. Consumer advocates started raising hell on the blogs and in traditional media, the White House started looking more closely at the issue, and literally within a matter of hours, Obama announced that he was not going to sign the bill. No long, painful, drawn out internal debate at 1600 Pennsylvania. No twisting round trying to split the middle on the issue. As soon as the issue was raised, the White House team focused on it, and made the right decision quickly. Elizabeth Warren, the new Assistant to the President and Treasury Secretary, weighed in. Pete Rouse, the new Chief of Staff, got engaged immediately. And the President made the right decision.
So what did we learn? First, that exposing sleazy dead-of-night deals cut by the special interests does sometimes work. And second, that having good people in key government roles really does matter. Obama might well have done the right thing without Warren and Rouse there, but it sure did happen quickly and easily with them around.
So, okay, I haven't lost it: I know that not all these decisions are going to go the right way as far as progressives and consumer advocates are concerned. But I think it is fair to ask ourselves what happens next and how the progressive community should respond to it.
I know the progressive community has a lot of folks who strongly dislike Obama, and won't change in that view. I know others who still strongly support him. (For myself, I have been in the middle- critical on quite a few things, supportive on others). But the tensions between Obama and many in the progressive community have been quite palpable for quite awhile now, on both sides. The question now is how progressives respond if Obama does start to move in a more progressive direction.
I know all the past sins people commenting on this post will recite (commenters, start your engines), but look at the past few weeks: the move toward more progressive and populist rhetoric on the campaign trail; the appointment of Warren; insisting on letting the Bush tax cuts for those making over $250,000 a year expire; the replacement of Rahm with Pete Rouse, who is thought by many inside the White House to be more sympathetic to progressive points of view than Rahm was. Based on what I am hearing, there will be more outreach to progressives over the next several weeks than there has been for a while.
So is it all nirvana? Is Obama turning into Bernie Sanders? Of course not. But if the Obama White House starts a concerted effort to reach out to progressives, and appoints some of them to key positions, and works with them constructively on more issues, does that change how the progressive community works with the White House?
I hope so. In the late '50s and early '60s, John and Bobby Kennedy did not start as avid civil rights advocates, and LBJ was cutting deals in the Senate for incredibly weak, watered-down civil rights bills. But the movement pushed them, and they responded by eventually moving left. Same with FDR and labor in the 1930s, and Lincoln and the abolitionists in the 1860s. Those movements had the flexibility and strategic sophistication to protest those Presidents when they needed protesting or work constructively with Presidents when they moved in the right direction- they didn't engage in a one size fits all tactic of protesting everything all the time. I hope the progressive community today has the strategic wisdom.
I don't know for sure what will happen next in the White House, or whether there will be more outreach and appointments and policy decisions us progressive activists cheer- it is way too early to tell. But progressives should be ready to move to meet the President halfway and work with him in the areas where he does move our direction, and we shouldn't always assume the worst. We should keep our healthy skepticism, push hard when we need to push, but be ready to engage when a door is opened to us to engage on.