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The second term that movements build

In the wake of the mid-term elections earlier this month, it might have seemed that there wasn’t much hope to hold onto for progressives, what with climate deniers and tea party fundamentalists rising to some of the highest offices in the land. What we’ve seen since, though, has been a string of executive decisions that might be cautiously described as hopeful.

In an official White House statement released early last week, President Obama expressed his support for net neutrality, a framing in itself pushed for by advocates on the issue.

“We cannot allow Internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas,” he said. “That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission to answer the call of almost four million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.”

Craig Aaron, president of the long-running net neutrality campaign group Free Press, told the New York Times, “It was the kind of clear, bold statement we had been waiting for” since 2008.

Then there’s Obama’s newly emboldened statements on immigration, which could create a pathway to citizenship for an estimated five million undocumented Americans. The move would extend amnesty to the parents of those granted legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. In the lead-up to the election, organizers with United We Dream interrupted a series of high-profile Democratic campaign events, calling on Obama and other Democrats, including presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, to “put families over politics.”

The White House had promised in June that it would take similar action before the end of the summer, only to announce later that it would postpone any decisions on immigration reform until after the election to benefit Democrats in red and purple states facing tough contests with Republicans. Immigrant rights groups also held a wave of action this summer calling for administrative relief from detention and deportation, and were instrumental in the passage of DACA and the DREAM Act for tuition equity in several states nationwide.

Environmentalists saw positive signs, too, as Obama pledged to veto any Congressional legislation that would force a decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, superseding federal review requirements. The biggest news for the climate movement, however, is that China and the United States — the world’s first and second largest polluters, respectively — have been brokering an until-now “secret” deal to cap both countries’ emissions post-2020. Secretary of State John Kerry took the pact public on Tuesday in an op-ed for the New York Times, writing, “Two countries regarded for 20 years as the leaders of opposing camps in climate negotiations have come together to find common ground, determined to make lasting progress on an unprecedented global challenge.” Both of these revelations come after increasingly militant and popular escalation in the climate movement, including September’s 400,000-person People’s Climate March, the growing on and off-campus fossil fuel divestment movement, as well as ongoing efforts to block the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and transportation infrastructure.

Of course, none of these announcements are guaranteed to translate into actual policy shifts. For all of the above, details on enforcement are vague at best. Even the statements themselves are something of a mixed bag: The immigration reform package could include increased funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and the climate deal is non-binding. Naomi Klein commented that free trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership could even trump legislation by “[bestowing] corporations with outrageous powers to challenge national policies at international tribunals,” which could prove a threat to climate action and net neutrality alike. Democratic strategists are already plotting how they can leverage support for the Keystone pipeline to win over moderate Democrats in Mary Landrieu’s upcoming senatorial run-off election in Louisiana. Progressives are no strangers to false assurances; as United We Dream managing director Cristina Jimenez told CNN, “Details matter and promises have been made before.”

Responding to his new-found willingness to take on the GOP, pundits have commented that Obama is attempting to carve out a progressive legacy in the latter half of his second term. This may be true, but this week’s announcements are also evidence of the work grassroots organizers have been doing to put pressure on the White House since well before the 2008 election. In other words, like other presidents, any progressive legacy Obama manages to build between now and 2016 will be a product of the movements that challenged him most.