WASHINGTON - "We are the change, we have the power," Campaign for America's Future co-director Robert Borosage told progressive leaders and activists from around the country today.
"We are headed into fierce battle" over the next few years, Borosage said, as the America's Future NOW! convened for three days of discussion and debate on the role of progressives in the Obama era, curbing Wall Street, ending corporate influence over politics, fighting for jobs and justice, and building a new, green economy.
Looking back on the 2008 Obama election victory, followed by18 months of what Borosage called "the greatest flurry of reform in over 50 years," panelists offered a variety of perspectives. But the bottom line shared by all may have been captured best by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who brought the crowd to its feet at the close of the day when he said, "It's time to fight again." The Great Society and the War on Poverty must not be "a dream deferred," Jackson said. "We have never won unless we fought."
Introducing a panel titled "The Great Debate: Progressives in the Obama Era," Roger Hickey, CAF co-director, said, "Candidate Obama's agenda was our agenda." But, he said, recalling the words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, "we all know that power concedes nothing without a fight." Corporate interests have put their stamp on every victory won in the last 18 months and stalled other progressive priorities, Hickey said. Noting that "many hoped that Obama would lead the movement to stand up to corporate interests," Hickey posed the question: "Is this Obama's problem or is it ours? What can we do to ensure that Obama achieves that transformation?"
Borosage had one take: Obama was elected with a mandate and a cascading crisis that requires fundamental change, but in the reform battles over the past year, he said, the White House was "too timid," too ready to compromise, the president was "too reluctant to draw clear ideological differences" and the "right wing gained greater traction than it otherwise might have."
"We, WE, will have to fight," Borosage declared. "We have to revive our independent movement. We have to stop waiting for Obama. We have to take on conservatives in both parties. The progressive movement must organize independent of the Democratic administration to effect change."
On the other hand, Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change emphasized that "we have accomplished much more in the last 18 months than progressives give ourselves credit for ... We do ourselves great disservice by failing to acknowledge this."
The "arrow of change had been going in the wrong direction for a long time," not just under Bush but also under Clinton, Bhargava said. "Now it is headed in the right direction." There are failures and disappointments, such as lack of progress on Employee Free Choice, he said, "but the change we have achieved is larger than it appears in the rearview mirror to many."
The central question is not what Obama does or does not do, but what the movement does, he said. The key difference between the progressive advances of the 1930s and '60s and the decades of right-wing advance, Bhargava said, was the existence of "stronger, more vibrant social movements." Progressive advance is "only partly about how Obama responds, it's mostly about what we do," he said. Pointing to the more than a million who have marched for immigrant rights, in a movement in which "some of the most marginalized have put their bodies in the streets," Bhargava said, "That's what it's going to take."
Darcy Burner of ProgressiveCongress.org said, "The progressive movement has to do whatever it takes to make this president do the right thing." This, she said, is "the best way to support Barack Obama." Burner said, "It's not our job to make this president or his administration comfortable."
Arianna Huffington said electing Obama was the easy part, the struggle now is the hard part. But, she said, "Bipartisanship is not the way to fundamental change." Asking, "Why isn't greater urgency coming out of Washington to solve Main Street's problems?" Huffington said, we need "Hope 2.0," we need to "take matters into our own hands."
Yet, Bhargava said, it's essential for progressives to have a "sober, realistic view of the nation we live in." He said he did not think there is a "sweeping mandate for progressive change" - it's still a divided country with very contradictory opinions - and that underscores the importance of attracting new people to the movement.
As participants discussed these issues at their tables, Joe Tolbert, a young African American man and state project coordinator for the Highlander Center in East Tennessee, said he has argued with friends that the election of Obama was "a milestone," but "it's not the end" of the struggle. His Highlander co-worker Ada Smith, a young white woman based in Eastern Kentucky, said what's important is not whether people are "red" or "blue" staters, but "whatever is going to make people's lives better."
Panelist Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins of Green for All made that point: "The white coal miner in West Virginia and the black woman working at Chevron in Richmond, Calif., have the same needs." We believe in the president, she said, but the "vital issue is: does the quality of life of our families get better." That is "the beauty of green jobs," she said. "It allows us to bring everyone together and meet their needs. That's what Glenn Beck is afraid of."
Deepak Bhargava, left and Roger Hickey, right, and Darcy Burner, not pictured, lead a discussion "Progressive Strategy in the Obama Era" at Campaign for America's Future's "America's Future Now!" conference, June 7, in Washington. (America's Future Now/OurFuture.org)