How Not to Blow It

It's hard to overstate the transformative moment that we're in as a nation and, particularly, as progressives. In just a few years, we've gone from the high point of conservative power to a stunning rejection of conservative federal leadership and the historic election of a progressive African-American president.

But the electoral sea change is just part of the extraordinary national moment. The financial meltdown and slide toward deep recession have crystallized Americans' anger over deteriorating economic security, stagnant mobility, growing inequality, and policies of isolation instead of connection. Americans are ready for a new social compact and a transformed relationship between the people and our government. They are calling for a new era of big ideas and different values than we've seen over most of the past three decades.

The electorate has shown an unprecedented willingness to overcome racial and ethnic barriers to take on daunting shared challenges. Young people, people of color, and low-income people turned out to register and vote in unprecedented numbers that bode well for a far more participatory and egalitarian democracy going forward.

Even before this year's remarkable events, opinion research showed a historic, progressive shift in Americans' views on issues that (not coincidentally) were barely mentioned in the election. Perhaps most striking is the shift on criminal justice and problems of addiction, where the U.S. public has moved broadly to support rehabilitation and treatment over incarceration and retribution, as well as assistance and integration for people emerging from prison.

But an unprecedented opportunity for progressive values and ideas is not the same as victory for a progressive social and policy vision. The stark challenges of rising inequality, faltering security, and broken systems of health care, immigration, and criminal justice are the same on November 5 as they were on November 4. What's changed is only the chance for transformative change.

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A Guaranteed Right to Health: The Key to Presidential Greatness

President-elect Barack Obama has renewed our hope as Americans that the promise of opportunity is revitalized, alive and well. But in order to secure his own legacy as the first great president of the 21st Century, and one of the greats in American history, he will need a grand undertaking equivalent to Abraham Lincoln's saving of the Union or Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Amidst the current economic downturn, it would appear clear what the momentous challenge and chance for long-lived admiration will be for an Obama Administration, and it is health care.  Not small bore reforms of existing programs or expansions around the margins of the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) or Medicare, but a truly revolutionary sea change in the compact that the American government and their people share in relation to the health of the populace.

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The Great Change

The sound of change still lingers amidst the towering skyscrapers along Michigan Ave. and Adams Street, where Route 66 begins its long course across the Land of Opportunity.  And as the wind blows words around like confetti, lifting them up with every gust coming in off the Great Lake, tired and weary travelers stir from only a few hours sleep and breathe in the air of change.  And as President Elect Barack Obama wakes with his family, and ponders the task set before him, one thing stands clear on this day after Election Day 2008--that is: America reclaimed it's vision of Opportunity.    

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"No-Match" No Fair

Last week the Bush administration announced a renewed push to clamp down on undocumented workers.  Specifically, the rule would ask a federal judge to lift an injunction on the "no-match" rule.

The rule protects businesses from failing to respond to so-called "no match" letters sent out by the Social Security Administration stating that the number provided by an employee does not match the information in their database.  This may indicate the worker is undocumented but many are the result of clerical errors including, for example, women not updating last names after marriage.

Judge Charles R. Breyer last year warned that the plan would have "staggering" and "sever" effects on workers and businesses.  It's reasons such as this that have brought together not just traditional groups working for immigrant rights, such as the ACLU, but also the AFL-CIO, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Particularly amidst the recent sharp economic downturn, business leaders are concerned about the Bush administration's plan.  If this effort to lift the injunction against the "no-match" rule is successful, the government would ask up to 140,000 employers to check the social security numbers of 8.7 million workers.  Businesses must resolve discrepancies within 90 days or fire the workers.

Angela Amador, the Chamber's director of immigration policy is concerned about the costs of complying with this rule.  The Chamber's objections"[have] been about the cost of a badly thought out rule and the cost on legitimate businesses following all the rules and complying with it."

Groups such as the ACLU and the National Immigration Law Center are concerned that the plan would lead to racial profiling, discrimination, and the firing of people based on clerical errors.  They argue the Bush administration should work instead towards fixing the flawed database.

Cross posted at The State of Opportunity.

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Framing to Win: Health Care is "a Right for Every American"

Are we "consuming" health care or realizing our "rights?"  The American public is ready for a new conversation; in fact, the conversation has already begun.  Are you speaking the right language to be a part of this new discussion?

In the second presidential debate last evening, Tom Brokaw asked of the two candidates a follow-up question, stemming from one woman's question of whether health care should be treated as a commodity.  Both candidates demurred from the initial inquiry, but Brokaw pressed them on his own follow-up: "Is health care in America a privilege, a right, or a responsibility?"  What caused many of us who have been following both campaigns and their proposed health care policies to sit up in our seats was Sen. Obama's answer, "Well, I think it should be a right for every American."  The reason to take notice isn't that a politician answered a question directly, impressive though that is, but the much more important reason is the re-framing of an issue long discussed on both sides as a consumer good.

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Health Is Our Economy

As Congress considered the bailout of Wall Street, there appears to have been little focus in the debate on the underlying causes of the larger economic situation that the United States is in.  Our current predicament is not just about mortgages or the undercapitalization of the financial sector; it is also very much about the shift in priorities in this country over the last thirty years.  We have come a long way from the idea of The Great Society, a productive national community that not only took care of itself, but grows consistently stronger for having done so.  In the New York Times this past weekend, Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of bioethics at the National Institutes for Health, argues that in some ways, the current crisis is a symptom of "chronic problems," specifically the continued unfulfillment of our human right to health care:

[S]olving the deep problem of the economy cannot be done without solving the health care mess. Economic, tax and health care policy are inextricably linked. Middle-class incomes have hardly grown in 30 or more years (except for five years in the 1990s when health care costs were moderated), budget deficits are escalating and will only worsen and investment in education and other engines of long-term economic growth are declining.

These problems are all driven by health care. Rather than go to wage increases, almost all of the growth in workers' productivity has been swallowed up by rising health care costs.

Basic economic security cannot exist without good health, and without a foundation of economic security, our efforts to aspire to be a better nation--one that fulfills the interconnected promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--are in danger of proving futile.  As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his 1944 State of the Union address, "we have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence."

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Health: A Big Week For Equality

It's been a big week for equality, as Congress has passed two major pieces of legislation that move the country in the direction of equal access for all Americans regardless of disability.

The major headline which you have probably heard about is the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments. These amendments restore the spirit of the original Americans with Disabilities Act, which had come under fire from Supreme Court rulings that put people with disabilities in a Catch-22 situation. As explained by Cristóbal Joshua Alex of the National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights:

In one case after another, the Supreme Court whittled away at the landmark Americans with Disabilities Actby ignoring Congressional intent and narrowly interpreting the definition of disability. [. . .] This created a Catch-22 situation: if a person is able to limit the effect of having a disability, say by taking medication or using a medical device, that person would no longer be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and employers were free to discriminate at will. The result has been devastating. Plaintiffs lose 97% of employment-related cases under the ADA.

The absurdity played out in courtrooms across the country where judges, following the Supreme Court precedent, ruled that people with epilepsy, cancer, muscular dystrophy, mental retardation and even
blindness were not "disabled" under the ADA. But, as the bill's sponsor, Congressman Steny Hoyer points out, the ADA is not about disability, it's about the prevention of wrongful and unlawful discrimination.

The Amendments passed by an almost unheard of unanimous voice vote in both the House and the Senate. The impressive victory was a result of all stakeholders in the process, business, labor, and advocates for people with disabilities, recognizing that they were all part of the same community and could find common ground to restore the anti-discrimination protections of the law. When we unite around common American Values such as fairness and dignity, we can find commonalities with those who we might usually think of as our adversaries.

More good news came yesterday with the news that the Congress has also passed a long sought-after mental health parity bill that requires health insurers to treat mental health coverage on equal terms with physical health coverage.  The legislation passed in the Senate as part of a larger renewable energy bill by a vote of 93-2, and in the House by a vote of 376-47.  In the words of some of the Senators key to the passage of the legislation:

"This bill provides mental health parity for about 113 million Americans who work for employers with 50 employees or more," said Mr. Domenici, who has a daughter with schizophrenia.
"No longer will people with mental illness have their mental health coverage treated differently than their coverage for other illnesses like cancer, heart disease and diabetes."

With this bill, said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, "we are eliminating the stigma and affirming the dignity" of people with mental illness.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, said, "Mental illness will no longer take a back seat to physical illness."

Mental health parity was one of the signature issues of the late progressive champion, Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, who died tragically in a small plane crash while campaigning for re-election in 2002. His work, and those who have continued it, demonstrate that equality, opportunity, and dignity are American, not partisan, goals.

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The Promise of Opportunity

Taking another look at "New Progressive Voices," a collection of essays outlining a new long-term, progressive vision for America, today we turn to our Executive Director, Alan Jenkins', contribution.

The piece paints a bleak picture.  Alan outlines many of the problems facing regular Americans today.  Many people are having trouble getting a job that pays a living wage, paying for health care, and getting their children into quality schools.  Tying this together with the present high rates of incarceration, all signs point to a general lack of opportunity in America.

In keeping with goals of this essay collection Alan's essay, "The Promise of Opportunity," strives to give concrete solutions to these communal ills.  Alan's essay suggests making "opportunity" a metric by which to consider the viability of federal programs.

As with the environmental impact statements currently required under the National Environmental Policy Act, the relevant agency would require the submission of information and collect and analyze relevant data to determine the positive and negative impacts of the proposed federally funded project. Here, however, the inquiry would focus on the ways in which the project would expand or constrict opportunity in affected geographic areas and whether the project would promote equal opportunity or deepen patterns of inequality.

While the measures of opportunity would differ in different circumstances, the inquiry would typically include whether the project would create or eliminate jobs, expand or constrict access to health care services, schools, and nutritious food stores, foster or extinguish affordable housing and small business development. At the same time, [these Opportunity Impact Statements (OIS)] would assess the equity of the project's burdens and benefits, such as whether it would serve a diversity of underserved populations, create jobs accessible to the affected regions, serve diverse linguistic and cultural communities, balance necessary health and safety burdens fairly across neighborhoods, and foster integration over segregation.

To read the full article, click here.

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Announcing "New Progressive Voices"

The Opportunity Agenda is pleased to help announce, on behalf of the Progressive Ideas Network, the release of a new collection of essays outlining a new long-term vision for America.

"New Progressive Voices: Values and Policy for the 21st Century" brings together leaders from a wide array of organizations, of different backgrounds, to present a bold, progressive agenda for America's future.  Integral to the project is a commitment, not to just presenting a new direction, but also realistic approaches to solving our collective problems.

From the collection's introduction:

In recent decades, progressivism has faltered. It was conservatives who developed and moved the big ideas, while progressives triangulated, tweaked, and tinkered. Since the 1960s, progressives have been running on the fumes of the New Deal and Great Society, confining themselves largely to narrow issue silos and poll-tested phrases and positions. Content to play defense in many of the major political battles of the day, they have all too often been cowed into submission by the vitality and confidence of the other side.

Now that is changing. Instead of obsessing about what we are against, progressives have begun to think about what we're for -- to prepare once again to play our role as agents of bold ideas and political and social transformation. Finding new confidence and imagination, we have begun to renew our intellectual capital. The essays in this volume draw on that new store of capital to sketch the outlines of a progressive agenda for 21st-century America.

Our own Executive Director, Alan Jenkins, contributed an essay to the collection.  You can read "The Promise of Opportunity" here.

Read more from The Opportunity Agenda here.

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Shifting the Political Debate

A year and a half ago, The Opportunity Agenda embarked on an ambitious effort to elevate social justice values, problems, and solutions in the 2008 presidential election cycle.  In particular, we sought to make two crucial ideals, Opportunity and Community, front and center in public and political discourse around the campaign.  Opportunity is the idea that everyone should have a fair chance to achieve his or her full potential; it is an idea inextricably linked with the American Dream.  Community is the notion that we share a sense of responsibility for each other; that we're all in it together and strongest when we leave no one behind.  Community values are the essence of our national motto, e pluribus unum, "from many, one."

The Opportunity Agenda has promoted those values across social issues, from education to living wages to the integration of immigrants to health care to family farming, identifying the practical solutions that uphold our core ideals.  We have worked in collaboration with hundreds of social justice leaders, organizations, and everyday folks, and in a particularly strong partnership with the Center for Community Change and its network around community values.

Our effort has included research on American values, public opinion, framing, and media discourse; communications tools and training for hundreds of advocates, organizers, faith, and political leaders around the country; outreach to mainstream and ethnic media; new media advocacy, from blogs to YouTube, to MySpace and Facebook; and message support to the Heartland Presidential Forum: Community Values in Action, co-sponsored by the Center for Community Change in Des Moines, Iowa, ahead of the caucuses.

Our effort is strictly non-partisan and does not embrace any candidate or either party.  We believe that a long-term campaign to move hearts, minds, and policy must cross partisan boundaries. 

As the Democratic National Convention came to a close, we were able to see real progress in moving the political discourse.  Opportunity and Community were very much "in the house" at the Democratic convention.  Indeed, the theme of the convention--renewing America's promise--had deep roots in the narratives of Opportunity and Community.  We'll be analyzing the Republican convention shortly.

At an important part of the convention speech, Obama combined the values of opportunity and community: "Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who's willing to work.  That's the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper." 

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