The Paper Chase: Dozens of Progressive Institutions Are Clamoring to Put Their Agendas on Obama's Desk. Will the Incoming President Actually Read Them?

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The last time Democrats took the White House, they managed, in the immortal words of George W. Bush, a "heckuva job." During the Clinton administration's famously rocky transition, one White House alumna saw signs of trouble early. "The day after the election, we were getting calls from leaders all over the world," she says, but apparently Clinton's team hadn't realized the State Department now worked for them. Martha Kumar, founder of the bipartisan White House Transition Project, recalls the story of one Clinton flack who "walked into his office and saw there were six phone lines and all of the phones were ringing." Tellingly, only one question came to his mind: "If I answer them, what do I say?"

Now that Barack Obama has won the White House, the rapture of those who put him there will be eclipsed only by the countrywide yawp for justice deferred. The stakes today are even higher than in 1992--Obama faces two wars, a financial meltdown, mounting inequality, restless enemies, and a simmering planet--and progressives have been sweating ink to ensure that they aren't caught fat-footed again. No fewer than 20 progressive think tanks, issue groups, media outlets, and ad-hoe coalitions have already or will soon release presidential transition plans. These open letters to the next president boast sweeping and ambitious titles: "Investing in America's Future"; Mandate for Change; "Opportunity '08"; Rebooting America; "Making Sense"; "Transitions in Governance'--as do their sponsors: the Campaign for America's Future, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Progressive Policy Institute, the New America Foundation, USAction, the journal Democracy, the Brookings Institution. Even the Heritage Foundation has a "to-do list." (Don't try to mix and match.) "There will be dozens and dozens of these things," says Peter Wallison, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute once rumored to be on the shortlist for a McCain Cabinet.

Many of these transition agendas take their cues from the conservative movement, which, following Barry Goldwater's 1964 defeat, felled thousands of trees in the name of Republican institution-building. Likewise, the exile of the Bush years has produced an architecture of progressive ideas that did not exist for the Democratic presidents of the 20th century, including Clinton. "Every group worth their salt has a plan for transition," says Mark Green, president of Air America radio and collaborator on the Center for American Progress Action Fund's Change for America, perhaps the largest and most influential of the transitional care packages. "Let's say you care about soil erosion. Well, you sort of have to say, 'Here's our plan to reduce soil erosion in the United States.'"

The left, preening for its close-up, has recognized that there is virtue in being prepared. So this year, that which can be tabbed, spiral-bound, or indexed has been. The ancient tradition of presidential advice-giving, once analog, is now industrial. The brief taste of change that Democrats enjoyed after reclaiming Congress in 2006 has only fueled this rush to paper Obama's desk. As Green says, in his best announcer voice, "To the winner goes the policy spoils."

TODAY'S DEMOCRATIC PARTY tends to look to two periods in history when we took major steps toward a more liberal society: from 1933 to 1938, when the New Deal reforms were enacted (Social Security, a minimum wage, health and safety standards on the job) and from 1965 to 1966, when the Great Society (the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts) was passed into law. For many liberals, 2009 portends the Next Deal (which is, naturally, the name of the USAction coalition's transition agenda). Robert Borosage, president of Campaign for America's Future (CAF), knows we've experienced"a sea change election, and [Obama is] going to have a big mandate, and he's going to have a country in deep trouble." To CAF, USAction, and the other K Street groups waving binders at the new administration, such nagging is more than ideological inclination--it's a historic duty. …