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The Nation

Liberals see a White House welcome mat

Environmentalists, labor unions, civil rights advocates and other groups place their hopes on Obama.

November 29, 2008|Mike Dorning and Jim Tankersley | Dorning and Tankersley write for our Washington bureau.

WASHINGTON — For years, progressive groups and their causes have been in the political wilderness. Now, with Barack Obama preparing to take the White House and Democrats tightening their hold on Congress, the party's liberal constituencies can see their way to a promised land.

Their vision includes federal laws banning job discrimination against gays; expanded hate-crime laws; public land protections from logging and oil drilling; and easier union organizing of workers.

Labor unions, environmentalists and other liberal groups are eagerly preparing for new confrontations with business and conservative interests. They feel secure in having allies in Washington's power centers, 14 years after Democrats last controlled Congress and the White House. (And some consider the exile even longer, dating from Ronald Reagan's 1980 election, because President Clinton's course was largely centrist and he had only two years with a Democratic majority in Congress.)

"Everybody is seeing the energy that has been unleashed in this election cycle," said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group.

Obama, who will have the largest Democratic congressional majority since the 1970s, won election on a platform that embraced causes dear to the party's liberal wing: withdrawal of troops from Iraq, a national healthcare plan and a big investment in clean energy.

"Every interest group, every group in the party, has a list," said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf.

Some wish lists may be relatively easy to fulfill. An expanded federal hate-crimes law -- a priority of civil rights and gay rights groups -- cleared Congress but was vetoed by President Bush. The Fair Pay Act -- a priority for women's groups that removes obstacles to pay-discrimination lawsuits -- came within four votes of overcoming a filibuster.

Other challenges are bigger: a pathway to citizenship for illegal workers, for example; or the union-backed Employee Free Choice Act legislation, vigorously opposed by business groups, that would make labor organizing easier.

And liberal groups already have an eye on the economic stimulus plan that the Obama administration and Congress will take up.

Unions want the stimulus to include a large infrastructure building program to create jobs for construction workers. Some want to include renovation of dilapidated schools.

Civil rights groups and advocates for low-income families want the legislation to allow bankruptcy judges to alter repayment terms for mortgages.

Gay and lesbian activists want equal job access and protection for homosexuals.

Environmentalists want the stimulus to include "green jobs" through alternative-energy development.

In fact, environmental groups -- which tangled with the Bush administration over policies minor and major, including protections for air, water, wildlife, and forests and other public lands -- expect swift and sweeping action from Obama on nearly every issue that matters to them.

Environmentalists expect Obama to "hit the reset button," as the Sierra Club's Josh Dorner put it, on a host of regulations that Bush weakened. They expect more input from scientists in framing environmental policy and more action from the Environmental Protection Agency in limiting greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, in keeping with a Supreme Court ruling from last year.

On the campaign trail, Obama pledged to regulate carbon emissions through a "cap and trade" system and to spend $150 billion over 10 years to boost alternative fuels.

Goodwill on the left has largely prevented activists from publicly complaining when Obama has distanced himself from campaign commitments. Labor's response was muted, for example, when he said that before acting on a campaign promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, he'd order a study of NAFTA. And there was little outcry when he signaled in September that he would delay delivering on a promise to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military.

"People are willing to wait a little while," said Elmendorf, the Democratic strategist.

Progressives say the Obama transition team's appointments and meetings with interest groups indicate that the welcome mat will be out at the White House.

"It feels like there's an air of transparency," said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "It is this different feeling, that the door is not closed -- the door is opening."

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mdorning@tribune.com

jtankersley@tribune.com

The Washington bureau's Christi Parsons contributed to this report.

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