Payback time for Obama as backers get tough
Published 19/11/2008 | 00:00
Barack Obama spent much of his campaign telling supporters: "It's not about me, it's about you." His problem is that many of them now believe they own a slice of him.
Although the President-elect has sought to disentangle himself from the thicket of political action committees and federal lobbyists, he is being besieged by interest groups -- car workers, Latinos, environmentalists and anti-war activists -- who claim to have contributed to his victory.
Even before taking office, Mr Obama has come under heavy pressure from unions to help to broker a deal for a taxpayer bailout of Detroit's troubled carmakers, while suggestions that Robert Gates may stay on as Defence Secretary have been denounced by anti-war activists as "a violation of the mandate for change".
The day after his inauguration on January 20 Latino groups will march in their thousands through Washington demanding immigration reforms, including an end to raids on illegal workers.
Mr Obama, faced with the swell of expectation and a crumbling economy, knows his administration is in danger of being flooded. As he wrote in his autobiography: "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them."
Yesterday green activists gathered on Capitol Hill with a giant airline ticket urging him to go to the United Nations climate change conference in Poland next month. Mr Obama sent a video message to a mini-summit on the issue in Los Angeles, which let them down gently.
"Stopping climate change won't be easy, it won't happen overnight," he said, before explaining that he would not be going to Poland because the "United States has only one president at a time". But he added: "Once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations."
Latinos, who cast about ten million votes -- 30pc more than in 2004 -- with fully two-thirds supporting Mr Obama, are among those pressing hardest. They want him to fulfil campaign pledges to make immigration reform a priority. The best they may get is a freeze on the big immigration raids that have caused such trauma to families and communities.
Juan Salgado, a leading Hispanic activist, said: "If we're sitting here two and a half years from now and absolutely nothing's been done, people are going to start asking questions."
Sceptics, however, say that introducing measures to give about 12 million undocumented workers legal rights will be extremely difficult at a time when unemployment has risen to a 14-year high. Rahm Emanuel, Mr Obama's incoming White House chief of staff, is on record as saying that an immigration Bill could not pass during the first four-year term of a Democratic president.
Industrial unions, which helped to contribute as much as $400m to the election campaign, oppose restarting discussions about a guest-worker programme. They may find Mr Obama backing away from pledges to renegotiate existing trade deals such as Nafta, which he made during Democratic primaries in rustbelt states.
Liberal groups such as Moveon.org believe that they propelled Mr Obama to victory. The group's website declares: "Together we did it!" It provided volunteers who worked almost 21 million hours for his campaign. Any evidence of a retreat from the strong anti-Iraq war position with which Mr Obama launched his candidacy will be seen as a betrayal.
Martha Kumar, the director of the White House Transition Programme, a group of experts studying and offering advice on the handover between presidents, said: "When one party has been out for eight years policy demands tend to be backed up."
But she suggested that the economic crisis and national security inheritance also gave Mr Obama some leeway which was not always available to his predecessors. "(© The Times, London)