President Barack Obama’s ambitious early agenda has freed him from a typical obligation of presidents: Keeping the party's organized interest groups happy.
On March 10, the labor movement’s prize legislation was introduced in Congress, and President Barack Obama celebrated by chastising teachers’ unions. In February, he (again) skipped Tavis Smiley’s State of the Black Union. And when he fulfilled a key promise to the abortion rights movement, he did it with minimum ceremony, on a Friday afternoon.
“He’s not a president who checks the box and does what some people would consider the minimum to keep various constituencies happy,” said Bill Samuel, the chief lobbyist for the AFL-CIO. “He doesn’t have to, because he’s doing very big things.”
But even as he's publicly keeping them at arms length and saying little on so-called wedge-issues, he's been quietly advancing their agendas, hitching many of them to the economic crisis that, he's said, is also an opportunity American cannot afford to waste.
The liberal interests that spent much of the 1990s clashing with President Bill Clinton and with one another have formed an unprecedented alliance, spanning labor unions and environmental groups, behind President Obama’s agenda. Shrugging off symbolic slights—early talk of bipartisanship, days spent grinning and gripping with Republican governors—liberal groups find themselves on the verge of achieving top goals after years or decades, including national role in health care, new regulation of greenhouse gases, expanded access to abortion, and a vast new round of government spending across the board.
With such gains on the horizon, and with a president who won without their support, most Democratic-leaning the groups have just shrugged off the snubs.
Obama has built a tight, disciplined coalition of allies despite conspicuously refusing, since he began his campaign in 2007, to kiss rings or make specific promises to most Democratic interest groups. While Hillary Clinton and John Edwards bargained for union support, Obama won the primaries with no major early organized labor endorsements, and with little organized support outside his own powerful new organization. That outsider status gave him the freedom to project a message of independence of the groups that make up the Democratic Party.
“His strategy was to go around the gatekeepers and appeal to their constituencies,” said Ed Kilgore, a fellow at the centrist Progressive Policy Institute.
That is, in a sense, still the model. When Obama ended Bush’s ban on funding overseas groups that perform or promote abortion, he did it quietly, on a Friday afternoon, with no popping flashes or handshakes with the directors of women’s groups. But the groups say that as long as he keeps pushing the policy – his budget includes more funding for family planning programs, and cuts to abstinence-only programs, for instance—they have nothing to complain about.
“We’re not into the symbolism—we’re into the policy change,” said Nancy Keenan, the president of the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Abortion foes, meanwhile, have been sounding the alarm—but one that’s been scarcely heard as Obama soft-pedals the issue and focuses his public energy on the economy.
“While we have this shiny object called the economic crisis over here, he is taking the agenda of the abortion industry and other far left interests and using the stimulus bill and the funding to pass it,” said Greg Mueller, a veteran conservative operative. “They’re getting everything they want.”
Environmental groups, too, are mobilizing behind Obama’s budget for its commitment to instituting a cap and trade program, a core measure intended to combat global warming. Environmental leaders contrasted the approach to hat of Clinton, who had no particular environmental focus in his legislative agenda, though his administration used administrative measures to tighten environmental regulations.
“Our priorities are his priorities,” said Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters. “Both Clinton and Obama came in saying the economy was the biggest problem. For Clinton, the solution had nothing to do with our issues. The core solution with Obama is bringing us a new energy future.”
Nowhere is the liberal coalition more eager to follow Obama, and nowhere is the contrast deeper with Clinton’s first term, than with health care.
“When we took office there were deep divisions within the Democratic caucus about [a] single-payer” system, recalled Bruce Reed, a former Clinton policy aide who heads the Democratic Leadership Council. “It’s still a big tent party, but now the poles are closer together.”
Now, the congressional leaders, unions, and others focused on health care reform have settled on some version of a hybrid plan that builds on existing plans.
“We’re very much in line with what that campaign plan was,” said Jacki Schechner, the national communications director for Health Care for America Now, an umbrella group whose members include large swathes of the Democratic coalition, ranging from the community organization Acorn and labor unions to black, Latino, and religious organizations.
The coordinated new efforts to press Obama’s message and to pass his budget are expected to expand dramatically when Congress goes into recess next month.
The AFL-CIO and other labor groups—who spent much of President Bill Clinton’s first year at war with him over the NAFTA and GATT trade agreements—are now mobilizing for Obama’s agenda, and their own. Obama’s jab at the teachers did nothing to dissuade labor from a large-scale campaign planned for Congress’s recess next month, a dual push for the labor bill and for the presidential priority of health care reform.
If there’s one big interest group in the party that doesn’t quite fit the pattern, it’s the gay and lesbian organizations, whose members feel under siege by California’s marriage fight and burned by Obama’s selection of Pastor Rick Warren to bless his inauguration. The president of Human Rights Campaign, Joe Solmonese, said he appreciates Obama’s stances on gay rights and expects some movement by Memorial Day, but that Congress will be key to progress. His group has chosen not to join a broad pro-White House coalition, Unity ’09, he said.
For most of the groups, though, bipartisan gestures are a small price to pay for the scale of the promises on which the new administration is delivering.
“We’re looking at what’s real substance here,” said Chuck Lovelace, the legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “As to whether or not people go to bill signings or not – I don’t think that is important. What is important is the overall policy of the administration.”