The centerpiece of the first day of the America’s Future Now! conference was expected to be a debate between representatives of two camps within the progressive movement: those who are supporters of President Obama who say the movement needs to show him more support and those who are frustrated with President Obama and say the movement needs to challenge him.
But the activists who participated in the first three hours of the conference found that they were essentially in one camp, the mood of which was captured in words like those of Arianna Huffington, who 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.
“I consider this room the church of change,” said Phaedra Ellis-Lamkin, the president of Green for All, to emphasize that it was progressive activists working in communities who are at the vanguard of progressive change and who have to set the standards by which elected officials are held to account.
The theme ran through the comments by Darcy Burner, the director of the Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation, and Deepak Bhargava, the director of the Center for Community Change.
“It is not our job to make this president and this administration comfortable,” Burner said, representing those more eager to challenge Obama. “It is to make this president and the administration do the right thing, even when it is uncomfortable.”
Bhargava, himself a critic of Obama’s stances on immigration and jobs policy, nonetheless offered positive words for an administration that he said “achieved much more in the last 18 months than progressives give ourselves credit for.”
But Bhargava said that progressives can be faulted for not having a mass movement on the left that matches pound for pound the fervor of the “tea party” movement on the right and its ability to capture the attention of the mass media and the general public.
Burner said that based on what she has seen on Capitol Hill, “we are not advocating for our side in the way that the right is advocating for theirs.” In many congressional offices “there are 10 Tea Party calls for every one of ours.”
And that level of intensity changes the perception of that the political limits are, both agreed. Obama’s natural inclination is to be a consensus builder, Burner said, but progressives have to ask themselves, “What choices are we giving him for building consensus?”
Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos, and Ilyse Hogue, campaign director for MoveOn.org, were also on the same page when it came to how the progressive movement needed to respond to today’s political challenges. Moulitsas criticized progressive organizations that supported nonprogressive candidates based on narrow interests that short-circuited broader progressive goals. Progressives have to be “willing to fight for the people who fight for us” and “call out our own” when they don’t stand for us, Hogue said.
It is perhaps no surprise that when a conference chooses the theme “We Are The Change,” its principal speakers and many of the participants would echo the theme. But there is also the hard-won realization that once again American history is repeating itself, and that in the end, as Bargava said, “presidents do not create social urgency”—even presidents with Obama’s gift for painting a broad progressive vision—but “independent movements do.” And anyone who supports President Obama can do that by, as Burner concluded, “making him do the right thing.”