Progressives to Gather at Tides Momentum Conference with Frustration with Obama on Their Minds

Our country and our still new president are facing a political crisis moment. Stacked against us are fundamental issues – health care, climate change, war, and a still-floundering economy. How each and all of these issues are resolved (or not) may well determine the success of Obama's presidency.

With health reform and the so-called “public option” reportedly on life support (although some activists strongly disagree with that prognosis), and the increasingly unpopular Afghanistan war on the verge of yet another escalation, many progressives and Democrats are frustrated, angry, or simply scratching their heads in disbelief. The Obama they thought they elected is not meeting their expectations.

Although Obama still has relatively high numbers among Democrats, they appear to be dropping with some speed. A Zogby interactive poll showed a dip of 13% in Obama's approval ratings in the last month. Republicans' and Independents' assessments remain stable.

Obama has lost even more support among 18-29-year-olds, who may have been more invested in Obama's message of change and have less patience with recent disappointments: Obama's approval ratings among young voters has dropped by 18 points.

It is in this fraught emotional and political climate that the Tides Foundation is holding its 4th Momentum conference at the W Hotel in San Francisco, from Labor Day through September 9th. The roster of speakers – which includes Donna Edwards, Roger Hickey, and Anna Burger -- and the topics they will address guarantee that the charged political moment in which we find ourselves will dominate the agenda.

Although the conference isn’t specifically designed to address the current political maelstrom (as Drummond Pike, the CEO of Tides, and the brains behind the conference says, "There’s not a theme per se for Momentum. We try to assemble the most innovative folks we can find working on policy, strategies, and tools that advance progressive outcomes") the political realities of the moment can hardly be avoided.

On the agenda is a “health care briefing”, which includes Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future and the lead spokesperson for the progressive wing of Democrats rallying for a “public option.” An appearance by Crystal Hayling, President and CEO Blue Shield of California Foundation, and California health activist Anthony Wright, should make for interesting debate. Anna Burger, the powerful number two leader of the country’s largest Union, the Social Service Employees Union (SEIU), is scheduled to speak at the Work Plenary. SEIU has invested tens of millions of dollars in organizing around health care reform, and is in the heat of the battle – a battle, as Ezra Klein of the Washington Post reports, has the White House decidedly split between the policy advocates who insist that we need a robust health care plan to work towards covering all Americans, and White House political operatives pushing to scale back the plan to make it more “politically viable.”

At all levels, the battle for health care reform is as contentious as any in recent memory. The country has endured well-publicized town hall battles, often provoked by right-wing astroturf groups. We've seen the disturbing spectacle of right-wingers bringing guns – and fevered, threatening rhetoric -- to presidential events. Absurd fantasies like “death panels for Grandmas have dominated nightly news coverage of the debate over health reform.

Some would argue that progressives have made major strategic errors in the health care fight. In his critique of the politics of health reform, Tides Founder Pike questions the tactics employed by progressives in the struggle for a viable health care system.

Progressives needed to move the discussion in our direction by strong advocacy for deep change and reform. Take health care: progressives have made a mistake on health care by cooperating with the Administration’s idea of a ‘bi-partisan’ approach to reform. In so doing, they gave up on a single payer system at the very beginning. The argument was that the “public option” was the only politically viable outcome. Of course, now that the insurance companies and rightwing noise machine have weighed in, the “public option” is about to fall off the table as well, leaving us with….well, the private markets. Not exactly a progressive outcome. What one cannot help but wonder is what would have happened if progressives had insisted on a single payer bill – at least for debate purposes. Then the compromise might well have been the public option.

Progressive Congressional Donna Edwards Will Provide More Sparks

Another speaker bound to hold the Obama administration accountable at Momentum is Congresswoman Donna Edwards from Maryland. In her relatively brief time in office, Edwards has quickly gained national attention as a principled progressive, holding the administration’s feet to the fire when necessary. Edwards has also called on progressives to be better organizers.

Earlier this summer, at the America’s Future Conference in DC, Edwards spelled out what it means to be an effective progressive:

It means that we have to have ideas. It means that we have to sell those ideas. It means that we have to organize around those ideas. And sometimes, it actually means that we have to challenge each other, challenge ourselves, and challenge the president.

It means that there are occasions when no matter how great this President is, sometimes he may not be right. And you know what? We can't shut up about that because, trust me, if we were on the other side… they would not be quiet in the face of their leadership doing the wrong thing.

And so we have to be that smart too. And I think, just among friends, we're really not so smart sometimes. And that has to change. That means that if the President is articulating a policy around Afghanistan that is not a policy that we believe is taking this country in the right direction, not only do the American people deserve us to raise our voices, but you know what? The President deserves it too. And I suspect that this president, because he is an organizer, because he understands the field, because he understands communities – he actually appreciates the challenge. And it will make President Obama a better President. And it will make our Congress a better Congress.

An Innovative Conference Model for a Hybrid Organization

The Momentum conference employs an innovative model that keeps the focus on the big picture. Instead of dozens of small panels devoted to narrow issues, the conference is organized around major, cross-cutting fundamentals: there are plenary sessions devoted to Capital, Power, Conflict, Carbon, Work, Rights, and Connections.

And some inspirational speakers will be featured, according to Pike. They range from Sony Kapoor, who will discuss the reforms needed in the international financial markets, to the riveting Ethan Nadelman on the drug war and incarceration. Also featured are NEA’s John Stocks, Ploughshares Fund’s John Cirincione on weapons proliferation, and the ever popular Democracy Now radio and TV journalist Amy Goodman. As Pike likes to say: “It’s gonna be a wild ride!”

The Tides Foundation – Support for Hundreds of Non-Profits

Tides is a well- known philanthropic hybrid -- really only one of a kind -- located in the Presidio in San Francisco. While Tides represents the interests of many individual donors, staffing and advising them and making grants on its own, it also provides fiscal sponsorship and administrative support to some 200 non profits. The organization works with both advocacy organizations, and the people who fund them.

Tides has made grants of more than $650 million to nonprofits since 2000 and they have a special commitment to spearheading the movement for green nonprofit centers. Tides has a lofty mission -- "to partner with philanthropists, foundations, activists, and organizations across the country and globe to promote economic justice, robust democratic processes, and the opportunity to live in a healthy and sustainable environment where human rights are preserved and protected."

Let’s hope all these goals are in action and on display at Momentum, because our country and the globe must work to transcend our rancorous public discourse and make important policy changes that bring about justice and fairness.

I’ll be posting a few blogs from the W Hotel, to keep you abreast of the topics and ideas under discussion. For anyone going to Momentum, don’t forget that the Bay Bridge is now shut down until Tuesday morning. So mass transit all the way, if you are coming from across the Bay.


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