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Liberals do a slow burn over Obama's go-slow approach

Activists recall his promises as a candidate and express frustration at his equivocation as president. They cite stem cell research and detainee policy as examples.

February 16, 2009|Peter Wallsten

WASHINGTON — Slowly over the last few weeks, some of Barack Obama's most fervent supporters have come to an unhappy realization: The candidate who they thought was squarely on their side in policy fights is now a president who needs cajoling and persuading.

Advocates for stem cell research thought Obama would quickly sign an order to reverse former President Bush's restrictions on the science. Now they are fretting over Obama's statement that he wants to act in tandem with Congress, possibly causing a delay.

Critics of Bush's faith-based initiative thought Obama had promised to end religious discrimination among social service groups taking federal money.

But Obama, in announcing his own faith-based program this month, said only that the discrimination issue might be reviewed.

And Obama's recent moves regarding a lawsuit by detainees have left some liberal groups and Bush critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, feeling betrayed, given that Obama was a harsh critic of Bush's detainee policies when running for office last year.

The anxiety is also being felt in the labor movement, one of Obama's most important support bases. Some union officials and their allies are frustrated that at a crucial point in negotiations over his massive stimulus package, Obama seemed to call for limits on "Buy American" provisions in the bill aimed at making sure stimulus money would be spent on U.S.-made materials.

Obama has been president for less than a month, and his liberal critics concede that the economic crisis has understandably taken the focus off their issues. But some of the issues in play were crucial to building excitement on the left and mobilizing grass-roots support for Obama's candidacy.

"He made very clear promises, and he should live up to them," said Arthur Stamoulis, director of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign, which received an unqualified "yes" from Obama on a campaign questionnaire last year when the group asked if he would support "Buy American" requirements. "The fact that he's hedging on this is not promising. He's catering much too much to the desires of Republicans who are not going to support the change that voters wanted."

Thea Lee, policy director of the AFL-CIO, said, "We would like to have him stand more forthrightly behind the positions that he took during the campaign."

Obama has long said his administration will be driven by competence, not political ideology. He has blamed the nation's problems on a failed and highly partisan political system, and has said that solutions should come by building coalitions that cross the traditional battle lines in Washington policy fights.

Moreover, White House aides say, Obama has already fulfilled promises such as enacting a labor-backed pay equity law and beginning the process of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"Given that we have only been here for three weeks, that is a pretty good start," said White House spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki.

Yet for some who supported him, Obama's recent actions contain either outright abandonment of what they thought had been campaign promises, or at least a hesitation on Obama's part to follow through quickly and clearly.

Union leaders were taken aback this month when Obama, during television appearances discussing the stimulus legislation, spoke skeptically of "Buy American" provisions in the bill giving U.S. makers of steel and other materials an advantage in bidding for contracts.

Obama told Fox News that the U.S. "can't send a protectionist message," and he cautioned on ABC News that the requirements could be a "potential source of trade wars that we can't afford at a time when trade is sinking all across the globe."

That language mirrored the criticisms that business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had used in arguing against "Buy American" rules.

Business groups were thrilled at Obama's words.

"That was an extremely important moment," said John Murphy, vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the biggest business associations. "The business community is very pleased that the White House stepped in and showed leadership on this issue."

"Buy American" rules remain in the stimulus bill that the president is scheduled to sign Tuesday, but labor advocates were alarmed by Obama's willingness to insert himself in the debate as a champion of business concerns. They said his stance was far different than during the presidential election, when Obama was trying to win union votes and called for rebuilding America with union-made materials.

Obama's new language was "a little disturbing," said Jeff Faux, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, which has received funding from labor unions.

He said the president had "moved so quickly to concede on this question without really drawing the debate out."

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