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Progressives Divided? Not All Back Obama Policies

Jennifer Skalka

WASHINGTON -- They might have the WH and Congress, but progressives - gathered this week for a four-day conference billed as "America's Future Now!" - aren't universally pleased with the Obama administration.

As a coalition of liberal groups announced their union today behind an unprecedented $82M grassroots and advertising campaign to push for health care reform, some consternation remains in the Democratic base about if Pres. Obama is pursuing a sweeping enough package. Others expressed dismay with his decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan.

During the question and answer portion of a panel about "The progressive movement in the Age of Obama," held at the Omni Shoreham and featuring Organizing for America director Mitch Stewart and Change to Win chair Anna Burger, among others, Burger was interrupted by a female audience member who barked from the darkened ballroom: "Why not single-payer?"

"It would be great to have single-payer, but I don't think that's going to happen this year," she said, adding that whatever plan is ultimately adopted, Democrats seem to be moving toward a public option plan that allows people to opt out of the system, will make a difference in people's lives.

A few minutes later, Deepak Bhargava, with the Center for Community Change, interjected, "I think many of us think the single payer system would be the best system," he said, drawing enthusiastic applause from many activists in the room.

But then he pivoted. "It is a step on the path," he said.

A step isn't enough for everyone. After eight years of assailing Pres. Bush's leadership, progressives are regrouping in an effort to leverage their newfound fortune - a WH in Dem hands and a Senate just one-vote shy of a filibuster-proof majority. They even had to change the past name of the annual confab from "Take Back America."

Some today sounded a broad caution that progressives shouldn't quiet their call for change just because Obama is at the helm or Congress is dominated by members of the president's party.

The best gift the left can give Obama, said's Ilyse Hogue, is a "vibrant, vocal progressive movement."

While Roger Hickey of Campaign for America's future suggested that an "inside and outside strategy" modeled on the civil rights era efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pres. Johnson in the 60s, will help the Democrats shepherd their policy plans through Congress, Hogue suggested the entire movement shouldn't fall in line behind consensus proposals if they don't go far enough or Democrats just because they're Democrats. She named Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA), in particular, as one whose stance on the Employee Free Choice Act remains in question.

"With all respect to Roger, I think our job is not to be inside or outside," she said. "It's to take the doors off the hinges and smash the walls down."

Progressives have reason so far to be pleased with Obama. From his public support for "card check," as EFCA is called, to his signature of a new equal pay law, he is making good on several campaign promises. But health care - and the shape of the plan he ultimately endorses - could create a fault line in the movement of people who worked so intensely to elect a one-term junior senator from IL.

Much of the focus of this week's conference seems to be creating unanimity behind shared goals - even if not all can be achieved. A video of Obama addressing the group in '06 and '07 was played for the crowd.

"It's going to be because of you that we take our country back," he said, at a past conference. The clip was set to upbeat music.

And several participants mentioned Obama's background as a community organizer. The message to attendees, of course, was that he knows what you do, he's done it himself, and he knows how critical it is to getting approval for his agenda.

But during that same question and answer session, a male audience member yelled, "Afghanistan!" apropos of nothing being discussed.

So for some on the left, the president isn't fulfilling all of his campaign promises and is starting to disappoint. Others suggest any divide is overstated. Hogue, for one, said that the media loves to fan the flames of "hot Dem on Dem action," as she called it.

"The famous firing squad in a circle, I don't think we're anywhere near that," said Helen Brunner, a DC resident attending the conference.

Change to Win's Burger put it differently. "Are there days when I wake up and think, could he have done more or could he be further out there? Absolutely." She said there will be more days like that, but noted still that Obama is a "transformational" president.

"We have to make him successful," she said. "We have to make him the best that he can be."

As for that massive push for health care reform, the groups supporting the effort include Health Care for America Now, the AFL-CIO and Change To Win, the Children's Defense Fund,, Americans United for Change, Rock the Vote, National Women's Law Center, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Democracy for America. The money will be used for grassroots organizing (troops are already on the ground in 46 states) and a sizeable advertising campaign.

During a lunchtime press conference, Howard Dean, recent past chair of the DNC and a doctor, said that it's more important to have a public plan than a bipartisan plan. "Bipartisan," he said, "is not an end in and of itself."

He said that Republicans haven't helped Obama with the stimulus package nor do they seem poised to offer an assist with approving his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the nation's highest court.

"If they're in there to shill for the insurance companies, I think we should do it with 51 votes," Dean said, suggesting that it be accomplished via budget reconciliation.

Dean added: "The American people voted for real change. They knew exactly what he was proposing when he was on the campaign trail."

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