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The San Francisco Chronicle

Early Signs Are Obama Has to Guard His Left

Carla Marinucci

Medea Benjamin says (jokingly) the anti-war group CodePink gave Obama "a 24-hour honeymoon." With just over two months until the new administration takes office and the transition in full force, Benjamin's words underscore the challenges facing a president whose historic campaign was bolstered by an unusual coalition that involved the activism, energy and money of unapologetic progressives like Benjamin as well as moderates and independents who are far more conservative.(Stephen Chernin / AP)

SAN FRANCISCO - As he prepares to enter the ring of White
House politics, President-elect Barack Obama might need to perfect that
left jab just as much as his right hook.

Not only can the Democratic president-to-be expect the predictable
shots from the conservative right, but eventually a pounding from the
left if he doesn't deliver "change you can believe in" on issues that
concern liberal voters - health care reform, an end to the war in Iraq,
environmental protections and taking care of the economy and the
housing crisis.

"We gave him a 24-hour honeymoon - and that was generous," joked
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the anti-war group CodePink, Thursday
about the chances of Obama's election silencing protests for the
foreseeable future. "We believe in celebrating and then moving on."

Her grassroots organization has wasted no time doing just that. On
Thursday, CodePink members hit five consulates in San Francisco - those
representing Bolivia, Venezuela, Syria, Cuba and Iran - delivering
flowers, apple pies and cards with a message as much for the
president-elect as for the leaders of those nations: "Yes We Can ...
Live in Peace."

"We told them we are embracing Obama's message, and part of that is
to push him," said Benjamin. "He's getting a lot of backlash on issues
like direct talks with preconditions. But that is what the American
people voted for - and we will hold him to that."

With just over two months until the new administration takes office
and the transition in full force, Benjamin's words underscore the
challenges facing a president whose historic campaign was bolstered by
an unusual coalition that involved the activism, energy and money of
unapologetic progressives like Benjamin as well as moderates and
independents who are far more conservative.

Mainstream tack

And many political observers say that means Obama must tack toward
the political mainstream to avoid miscalculations made by President
Bill Clinton, who veered left and fired up the 1994 Republican backlash
and its "Contract with America" - a GOP rebirth scenario Democrats
don't want to see reprised.

Obama supporter Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, an icon to liberals
because of her long-standing activism on issues such as AIDS/HIV and
her opposition to the Iraq war, said that as Democrats celebrate the
new president, they are also very aware of issues to be addressed.

"We know that the president-elect - and rightfully so - is going to
work to unite the country, and we will have to see how he does that,"
said Lee. "I'm not saying it's going to be easy. If we really want
change, you have got to do it differently, you have to accept the
process of change and accept that his processes will be more

But, she adds, "we're certainly not going to lose sight of our
goals and our values. ... If you look at the progressive promise - 95
percent of what we advocated for, energy independence, infrastructure,
health care reform - it's mainstream," she said.

'Symbolic victory'

At the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs' California
Policy Issues Conference this week, Melina Abdullah, a professor of
Pan-African studies at Cal State University Los Angeles, said that
although she and millions of other Democrats sang "It's a New Day" when
Obama was elected, "we need to be very clear ... this is a symbolic

African Americans, particularly, who supported Obama "need to think
about ... the fact that we are overrepresented in the prison
population, that infant mortality in our community looks a lot like
developing nations," and that jobs and economic opportunities are still
lacking, she said.


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"The only way that change can be substantive is if we push him,"
she said of Obama. "Push him on the issues that are important to us,
... so institutional racism, institutional oppression can really be
eroded in eight years," she told a crowd of young activists and
students at the conference, which was held in Los Angeles.

SEIU's agenda

Andy Stern, who heads the Service Employees International Union -
the nation's largest union, with 2 million members - says that labor
fully expects to push ahead on critical interests, such as health care

Especially since SEIU kept a singular focus on the health care issue
by spending millions of dollars on advertising that aided the
Democrats' cause - even as tens of thousands of its members provided
critical ground troops for his election, he noted.

"Most presidential elections, we are electing a transactional
president, someone who comes in and has a set of priorities and
bargains with the Congress and tries to find solutions," Stern said.
"Every once in a while, we have a transformational president, who
actually changes the rules. And that is the moment where we're at.

"This is not about transactional discussions with health care. This
is about transforming the economy, to change the way we provide health
care, to change the opportunities for people to get an education," he

"We say we will have a 21st century economy that can compete
globally," Stern said. "We need a fundamental reworking of our economic
theory - and it can't just be a little stimulus ... or to provide
health care for children only. It is a moment where we have to
transform the way we think."

Already, there have been complaints from the left regarding Obama's
choice of Rep. Rahm Emanuel as his White House chief of staff. Some
liberals have complained that Emanuel was too supportive of the Iraq
war, too tied to Wall Street and too connected to entrenched interests
to represent change - or the views of the left - in the White House,
where he worked in the Clinton administration.

Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who now directs the Jesse M.
Unruh Institute of Urban Politics at the University of Southern
California, said they may have reason to be concerned.

Perils of pull to left

"Rahm Emanuel ... understands the perils of a newly elected
president who intends to govern from a centrist force and how that
president can be pulled leftward," he told the Brown Institute
conference Wednesday.

"Emanuel is one of the five smartest people in American politics. He
has that experience, he's intelligent, he's tough as nails and he's one
of the few people I know in Washington who would be willing to go down
to Capitol Hill" and deliver the message to the left: "If you really
want to help this president ... then give him some space to enact his
agenda," Schnur said.

Emanuel's lore includes an incident in which he reportedly sent a dead fish wrapped in newspaper to an adversary, said Schnur.

If Obama is to succeed, he said, "my hope ... is that there is a
steady stream of such deliveries from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to
another to help President Obama accomplish his agenda." 

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