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Liberals gather in DC, ponder future

From NBC's Domenico Montanaro
This is a new position for liberals -- being in charge.

For the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, lefties lamented the state of America -- some even vowed to leave the country. (Most stayed.)

The yearly Take Back America conference, organized by the liberal Campaign for America's Future, served as a sounding board for that angst.

But now that Democrats have, well, taken back America, regaining the House, Senate and the White House, what's next?

First, they changed the name of the annual Washington confab to the tamer (yet more punctuated) America's Future Now! At today's kick-off of the event, organizer Roger Hickey noted the name change. "The reason for that change is you," he said, adding, "Last year, we took back America. We took it back from the edge of disaster."

But he continued, "Taking it back from the radical right-wingers -- that was just a first step... Now that we've taken back America, our job is to affect real change."

Anna Burger, who runs the SEIU's political arm and also serves on the president's Council of Economic Advisers said, "It was just a year ago we came here to take back America, and we did it... We have saved our capital and our country and have our leader in the White House."

She stressed, however, that pragmatism and working together were the reasons progressives won out. "We've learned to work together to get out of our silos," Burger said. She said that pragmatism might mean that working together might not get "perfect" results, but it would move the country in the desired direction.

"Sure, there are days when I think, 'Couldn't he do more?'" she said. "But look at what's already been done."

Ilyse Hogue, of MoveOn.org, said that saying "no" is a lot easier than pushing a progressive agenda. She added that in order to accomplish that, though, pragmatism is important, but progressives should hold members of Congress and the White House accountable -- referring especially to newly minted Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter.

She said progressives would not "blindly support" Specter. She added if he proves he'll vote with the constituency, then "we will help you." If not, "all bets are off."

She cited health-care reform, energy, and the Employee Free Choice Act (a.k.a. "card check") as issues where Specter can prove his progressive stripes. "Our primary mandate," Hogue said, "is to represent our constituency."

There are still some issues in which liberals aren't completely satisfied with when it comes to this president -- for example, banking, Afghanistan, and an iron-clad promise to have a public option for health care.

And murmurs of that could be heard here. During the Q&A session here, there were shouts from the audience of "single payer" and "Afghanistan".

Burger, at one point, got into a back-and-forth over single payer with a mic-less shouting audience member perfectly audible in the back of the large ballroom.

"I just don't think it's going to happen this year," Burger told the audience member, who continued to speak.

Fellow panelist Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, got loud cheers when he chimed in that "A lot of us in the room do think single payer is best." But he stressed that at least a public option would be a "step on the path."

[Editor's Note: Deepak Bhargava was incorrectly identified as having been affiliated with the Center for American Progress. He is not; he is the executive director of the Center for Community Change.]