In an excerpt from his new book, Fighting for Our Health, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch notices that FDR's message to his supporters was "I agree with you; now make me do it." In the health care fight, Obama's was, "I've got it covered; now leave me alone."
Since the collapse into disarray of his plan for a grand budget compromise with House Republicans this summer, President Obama has moved dramatically to appeal to the Democratic base. From his speech pushing an aggressive agenda on jobs right after Labor Day to his fiery, populist address in Kansas in December, to the State of the Union address last week, Obama has been working to accentuate the differences in his philosophy from the right rather than bending over backwards to bridge the huge gap. Behind the scenes, the White House has worked strenuously to mend another set of battered bridges -- those with progressive organizations and constituency groups.
In the first year of the Obama administration, it was a very different story. As I found in leading Health Care for America Now, the administration concentrated its charm offensive on potential opponents of reform while trying to reign in any pressure from the left. Rather than following the inside/outside strategy made famous by FDR, who supposedly advised his allies to "make me do it," the White House worked to squelch health reform supporters from fighting in or outside the beltway against legislative concessions.
The White House stance created a major dilemma for the leading progressive organizations, which were eager to work with the new Democratic administration after eight years of Bush. It took almost three full years of the president waffling, and the growing disillusionment of the Democratic base, for many organizations to begin to push more aggressively against the White House's compromises. But that pushback was another big reason that the White House switched courses in the late summer of 2011, realizing it was running out of time to hold onto its organized base.
But in the fall of 2009, the simmering tension between the White House and Health Care for America threatened to come to a boil.
Early on a September morning I got a call from a member of the HCAN Steering Committee. The message was brief: Someone at the White House had called SEIU and asked that I be fired.
Whoa. I felt for a moment that I was in a movie. This couldn't be happening to me. My mind started racing, considering how awful the White House would look if it became public that they were going after the head of a big progressive campaign for not toeing the White House line at every step. I might become a symbol for progressives of their growing alienation from the White House. But that was not what I wanted. I wanted to handle the crisis quietly and keep pushing for health reform.
Still, I was upset. When we began this journey, I had expected to take on the insurance industry, big business, the rightwing, and conservative Democrats. I never expected to be blindsided by a Democratic president, particularly when I was spending every waking moment fighting for his top priority. And I had never expected politics to be so personal.
Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a Senior Adviser to USAction. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform. Fighting For Our Health is available in bookstores February 1. You can also purchase a copy here. Follow the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.