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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Clarifying the Progressive Challenge

This item by J.P. Green was first published on June 16, 2010.
The ‘liberal Dems vs. Obama’ storyline has been getting a lot of play lately in punditland, likened to the neocon-tea party split in the GOP. But it’s a simplistic interpretation of what’s really going on in the relationship between the President and progressives in the Democratic Party. Katrina vanden Heuval, editor of The Nation, has a more nuanced explanation in her weekly column in the Washington Post:

There’s a tension between the Obama administration and the progressive movement, but it’s not the one mainstream media have been describing or that the White House seems to perceive….What’s happening on the left isn’t the equivalent of the anti-incumbent anger on the right. Most progressives support Obama and want his agenda to succeed…
At the same time, progressives have come to a realization. What we see, some 500 days into the Obama administration, is a president obstructed by a partisan Republican opposition, powerful entrenched corporate interests, and a minority of corrupt or conservative Democrats. The thinking is that if progressives organize independently and forge smart coalitions, building a mass movement for reform with a moral compass that can transcend left-right divisions, we may be able to push Obama beyond the limits of his own politics, overcome the timid incrementalism of the establishment Democratic Party and counter the forces of money and power that are true obstacles to change. As Arianna Huffington has said, “Hope is not enough. . . . We need a ‘Hope 2.0’ that depends not on what President Obama or other politicians say or do but on what we as progressives do.”

Vanden Heuval goes on to describe the white house overreaction to progressive groups’ support of Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s primary opponent and she offers this clarification:

Actually, the point of the exercise was that those opposing Obama’s reform agenda will not get a free pass. And there will be more efforts like it…This agitating role isn’t a new one for the progressive movement. Progressives organized a remarkable mass movement seeking to stop the Iraq war before it began. They built a counterweight in the blogosphere to challenge the mainstream media and the right. They created the coalition that beat Bush on Social Security. They gave Democrats their voice on Iraq, energy and health care that helped to take back Congress. And they inspired a junior senator from Illinois to think that something was moving with such strength that he might run and win the presidency.

This is what real progressives do. It’s not about sniping at the white house or whining about the President being too cautious. It’s about shifting the debate fulcrum leftward to give the President and Democratic leaders courage and room to move forward toward a more progressive agenda. Astute progressives understand that the President has to contend with powerful conservative forces and institutions that come with the job, just as an astute president understands that the job of the progressives in his base is, paraphrasing FDR, to “make me do it.”
As vanden Heuval says, “It doesn’t matter whether you think Obama has done the best that he can or that he has compromised too easily. What’s important is to alter the balance of power. And that means recruiting and mobilizing to unleash new energy into the debate.”
It’s much like the “creative tension” Martin Luther King, Jr. said was needed to break through the obstructionist status quo and energize the Civil Rights Movement. As vanden Heuval concludes,

…Progressives can help Democrats find the voice they need to avoid debilitating losses this fall…by challenging limits of the current debate…to show working Americans that Democrats are fighting for them…The tension between Obama and the progressive movement isn’t a threat to the president. Rather, it may be needed to save him.

A renewed commitment to this understanding will strengthen the Democratic Party, help cut losses in November and set the stage for victory in 2012.

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