What's Standing In The Way Of Change In D.C.?

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The progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org helped bring the Democrats to power. Now it's challenging Democrats, and the President, to stick to a liberal approach on issues from climate change to health care. Justin Ruben, the group's executive director, tells Steve Inskeep that the president needs an engaged, progressive movement to push him if he backs down.


For people who call themselves liberals it's the season of half a loaf. President Obama is not withdrawing from Iraq as quickly as many wanted. A climate change bill doesn't go as far as they hoped. Harper's magazine compares Mr. Obama to Herbert Hoover, the president whose half measures failed to end the Great Depression. And Justin Ruben, of the activist group MoveOn.org, is pressing Democrats not to negotiate away too much on health care.

Mr. JUSTIN RUBEN (MoveOn.org): I think the best thing for Obama is a strong, engaged and independent progressive movement that can take on special interests that are standing in the way of change right now.

INSKEEP: Notice he said independent. The group sometimes takes on the White House itself.

Mr. RUBEN: The president is known to tell a story about President Roosevelt, who speaking to civil rights leaders of his day said, great, I agree with you. Now, go make me do it. You know, and I think absolutely, our role is to support the president, to take on his opposition and also to hold him to his promises.

INSKEEP: Although, go make me do it, that also suggests you might try to light a fire under somebody at the White House or in Congress.

Mr. RUBEN: Absolutely, if that's what it takes.

INSKEEP: Well, what do you think is causing some Democrats, and even some people in the White House to seem to be supporting a little bit less change, or maybe a lot less change than you want on health care?

Mr. RUBEN: Washington is a town that is filled with entrenched special interests. On health care, for example, you have the Republicans who are - have staked out a position of total opposition to change, and then you'd have some Democrats who are still - seem to be listening a little too much to the health insurance companies. And I think that's why it's so important that the voice of the voters be heard.

INSKEEP: If I'm not mistaken, you have been taken out ads targeting specific Democrats who seem to you to not be embracing the public option.

Mr. RUBEN: Um-hum.

INSKEEP: What made you decide, for example, to target Kay Hagan, the new Democratic senator from North Carolina?

Mr. RUBEN: Kay Hagan is an interesting example. Thousands of Move On members got involved in working for her election. You know, there was a point at which she was saying that she wasn't sure what she thought about a public health insurance option. And so we felt like it was important to make sure that our members in North Carolina, their voices were being heard. You know, the good thing is that Kay Hagen decided to support a bill that includes a real public health insurance option that can keep the insurance companies honest.

INSKEEP: What made you decide to target Rahm Emanuel, the president's Chief of Staff?

Mr. RUBEN: I think we disagreed with Rahm's comments. We felt like they were unhelpful to the health care debate. And so we let the White House know about it.

INSKEEP: If I'm not mistaken, he made some comments suggesting that the question of a public option could be open for some debate, I'm paraphrasing.

Mr. RUBEN: Absolutely. What the president is doing to lay out the case for a public health insurance option is really important. It works best when that's what his administration is doing and not embracing half-measures and so our members were concerned about that and we encouraged them to let the White House know.

INSKEEP: By calling the White House switchboard?

Mr. RUBEN: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: What would you say about any number of people who describe themselves as liberals, or on the left, or just Obama supporters, who have said in recent months that they're disappointed, or that this isn't the guy that they voted for - whether it comes to how to treat detainees, when to end the war in Iraq, whether to escalate the war in Afghanistan, what kind of health care to support, issue after issue.

Mr. RUBEN: Move On members certainly don't agree with everything the president has done. For example, on the question of accountability for torture, we think that there needs to be a full investigation into the Bush era torture programs, and real accountability for the architects. It's the only way to make sure it never happens again.

But we're six months into this presidency and I think the real acid test comes over the next six months. Do we end up with health care reform? Do we end up with an energy bill that invests in wind and solar and not in hand outs to the coal companies. I think that's going to be the real test of whether this president is able to bring the change that he promised.

INSKEEP: Is that a kind of deadline that you would set for this administration? You've got six months to prove what you promised?

Mr. RUBEN: No, I don't think so, but I think the president has made it clear that there's going to be action on this stuff in the next six months.

INSKEEP: If people on the left are disappointed with what they get from the president, does the left have any alternative?

Mr. RUBEN: Well look, I think the key to this president's historic victory was an amazing, engaged movement of progressives and Americans of all stripes who came together to organize and then vote for change. And in four years, people are going to judge this president on whether he was able to deliver real change.

INSKEEP: Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org. Thanks very much.

Mr. RUBEN: Thank you so much.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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