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Activists Press Obama To Renew Progressive Stand
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Activists Press Obama To Renew Progressive Stand

Politics

DAVID GREENE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

LYNN NEARY, Host:

And I'm Lynn Neary. Progressive activists played a big role in helping President Obama get elected. In the years since, however, the big story of political activism in this county has been the conservative Tea Party movement. With growing protests still under way on Wall Street, as well as ongoing political battles in Wisconsin and Ohio and a tougher populist tone coming from the White House, there are signs that the left is finding renewed energy. That's certainly the goal of a conference taking place in Washington this week.

NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, Host:

This is the Take Back the American Dream Conference. And the 2,000 people registered at this edition of the annual gathering of progressives is more than double the 2010 event. Thirty-one-year-old Shamako Noble of San Jose, California, says he comes every year, and he says he's learned that you can't ever stop working. He looks back now at the last presidential election.

SHAMAKO NOBLE: It's like you work really hard, you attain a victory. It's not so ridiculous to think you might have a chance to rest. It's also dangerous in the environment that we're in.

GONYEA: That danger for progressives came in the form of the Tea Party movement. In the main ballroom yesterday, activist Van Jones, who served briefly in the Obama administration, picked up on those themes.

VAN JONES: It has been a tough couple of years. I mean, we can't get up here and lie and act like everything's been cool. We went from hope to heartbreak in about a minute.

GONYEA: Jones was forced to resign from the Obama administration in its first year, amid criticism from conservatives over controversial statements he'd made in the past. Yesterday, while calling the Tea Party's ideas wrong for America, Jones offered some praise for the movement, noting its organization and structure. He said the Tea Party watched how progressives networked, and used technology and social media, in supporting candidate Obama in '08, adding that those methods were copied and improved upon.

JONES: But this is an upgrade over what we did, and let me show you why. They branded not a person but a network. They didn't brand an individual. They branded a network.

GONYEA: And one with no identifiable leader. Jones said that has allowed the Tea Party to remain strong even as perceived leaders, like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, have receded in popularity.

There was a lot of talk here yesterday about the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City - and now spreading to other cities. Former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich, a favorite of liberals and labor unions, said even though widespread news coverage of the demonstrations has been slow to come, this is an important new movement.

ROBERT REICH: Let me tell you something: These demonstrations are the small tip of an iceberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

REICH: They're an iceberg of discontent and I say, demonstrate like mad.

GONYEA: From early on, there has been much discontent with President Obama among progressives. They wanted a health- care bill with a public option, and an economic stimulus geared more toward jobs. They've been frustrated by what they see as a president too quick to compromise. Some speakers here stress that it's time to rally behind the president, and not let a Republican win the White House. But others remain ambivalent, like activist and hip-hop artist Jasiri X, who's from Pittsburgh.

JASIRI X: Absolutely because, you know, I'm somebody that really fought and used my - not only my organizing skills but also my art, to get President Obama elected. And you know, I've definitely been disappointed at his lack of fight. I mean, I can't - how can I go out and fight for somebody that's not willing to stand up and fight for himself, so to speak?

GONYEA: Jasiri X says he'll work the election but not necessarily the presidential race. And that's one, big question about this conference. There does seem to be a re-energized progressive movement, but just how will that energy be channeled? Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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