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5 Great Progressive Moves by Obama That You Might Have Missed

It's been a full month since the inauguration of Barack Obama. With debates raging over the financial system and the larger economic crisis, Obama has quietly succeeded in pushing through some great progressive initiatives and picked an encouraging candidate for his drug czar.


Here are five significant under-the-radar things to be grateful for in the post-Bush era:

$10 Billion for High-Speed Rail

If one day in the next decade or two you find yourself rolling silently through the cornfields of Wisconsin at over 200 mph, on your way from Chicago to Minneapolis, you might spare a thought for Rahm Emanuel, who last week at the president's behest,instructed Democrats to insert $9.3 billion into the stimulus bill for the long-delayed development of high-speed rail in America.

Of all the examples of this country's outdated and crumbling infrastructure, none have been as glaring, persistent or shameful as the neglect of rail transport. While the Europeans and Japanese developed affordable bullet trains that allowed easy travel between regional hubs while producing five times less pollution as planes and cars, the United States remained stuck in the '40s -- the 1840s. The one exception is the successful (if expensive) high-speed Acela train running on the Boston-Washington corridor.

If all goes according to plan, the Acela won't be unique for much longer. Obama has long promised to make the development of a national high-speed rail network a priority. And so he has. Emanuel told Politico that the last-minute addition to the stimulus bill was the president's "signature issue," signaling a serious and sustained commitment. On top of the $9.3 billion, the administration will seek an additional billion each year. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has been tasked with coming up with a spending plan for the funds by late April.

Building a 21st century rail system will still take years, and controversies remain over how best to organize and fund the regional networks (especially in California, where plans for high-speed rail have divided even fierce proponents). But we are at least finally grappling with the technicalities and specifics of the challenge, as opposed to dreaming about one day catching up with the rest of the developed world. To update an old saying, the regional bullet train has finally left the station.

Broadband Initiative

High-speed rail isn't the only piece of American infrastructure getting a much-needed boost with the stimulus bill. More than $7 billion has been marked for the expansion of broadband access. The FCC, meanwhile, has been tasked with producing a comprehensive and long-term national broadband plan.

Most of the money will be distributed as grants through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which has been given a mandate to make the fastest broadband available to the most people as quickly as possible, with most projects being capped at two years. While experts say that the $7 billion is not nearly enough to bring the U.S. in line with the rest of the developed world, it is a major advance over the previous administration.

"The broadband stimulus package is a critical first step toward transforming our digital dirt roads into 21st century superhighways," says Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, a media reform group. "These funds will help boost broadband availability in the rural and underserved areas that need it the most, providing millions of people with good jobs, better education and full participation in our democracy."

Commission to Review Faith-Based Initiatives

It was a small change, but on Feb. 5, Obama signed an executive order renaming the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives entity created by President Bush. The new title of the organization is Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, with much bigger changes in store. Along with widening the scope of groups receiving funds, the White House has said it will not direct federal dollars to groups that proselytize or advocate for so-called reparative or conversion therapy for homosexuals.

Obama has also commissioned an advisory council to review the program and chart a new course for relations between government and local nonprofit groups. Although the council is being led by the conservative Joshua Dubois (a friend of pastor Rick Warren), it also includes one openly gay member, Fred Davie, president of Public/Private Ventures, a foundation to help low-income communities.

The most-anticipated aspect of the review is the panel's decision on whether religious groups that discriminate on the basis of religious background or sexuality can receive federal funding. If, as expected, Obama ends up revising the Bush rules, evangelical groups that discriminate, like World Vision, will no longer be eligible for funding. Even before the council issues its report, the president has already told the director of the new office to consult the Department of Justice on constitutional and non-discrimination law.

A Reform-Minded Drug Czar

During the transition, progressives and drug-policy reform advocates were jolted by rumors that conservative Minnesota Republican Congressman Jim Ramstad was Obama's choice to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy. But Ramstad didn't get the post, and Obama's recently announced choice for "drug czar," Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, is a relief and an opportunity. True, he's a cop, not a public-health expert as many reform advocates would have liked, but he's a relatively enlightened cop. (Even if the NAACP did once call for his resignation after his handling of an abuse case.) Kerlikowske comes from a city that has been a pioneer on policies such as needle-exchange programs, lowering marijuana as a law-enforcement priority and innovating overdose-prevention strategies.

A confidante of Attorney General Eric Holder, Kerlikowske has received strong local endorsements and praise for his tolerance of local medical marijuana laws, despite their being at variance with federal law. "Oh God bless us," a medical-marijuana patient told the Seattle Times upon hearing of Kerlikowske's nomination. "What a blessing -- the karma gods are smiling on the whole country, man."

Douglas Hiatt, a Seattle attorney and medical-marijuana advocate, also praised the choice.

"Kerlikowske is clearly familiar with drug-policy reforms and has not been a forceful opponent," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance Network. "It's a potentially transformative moment."

Swift Action on Arms Control

By all accounts, Obama appears serious about meeting his campaign pledge to drastically reduce the world's largest nuclear stockpiles and initiate a new era of arms control.

Earlier this month, it came out that even before he was sworn in, Obama had sent Henry Kissinger to Moscow to explore a grand bargain that would slash Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals to 1,000 each. The administration has signaled that it intends to reduce spending on missile defense, reconsider missile defense in Europe and deny funding for the development of new nuclear weapons. For the first time in eight years, committed nonproliferation experts are being slotted in senior positions at the State Department's relevant agencies.

"[Obama] came into office with the most comprehensive, integrated, detailed nuclear policy of any candidate ever to assume the presidency," Joseph Cirincione, of the Ploughshares Fund, said last week at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "I have a great deal of optimism for our chances to fundamentally change U.S. nuclear policy [and] make the world a safer and better place."

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