White House Unloads Anger Over Criticism from 'Professional Left’
The White House is simmering with anger at criticism from liberals who say President Obama is more concerned with deal-making than ideological purity.
During an interview with The Hill in his West Wing office, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs blasted liberal naysayers, whom he said would never regard anything the president did as good enough.
"I hear these people saying he's like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested," Gibbs said. "I mean, it's crazy."
The press secretary dismissed the "professional left" in terms very similar to those used by their opponents on the ideological right, saying, "They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we've eliminated the Pentagon. That's not reality."
Of those who complain that Obama caved to centrists on issues such as healthcare reform, Gibbs said: "They wouldn't be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president."
The White House, constantly under fire from expected enemies on the right, has been frustrated by nightly attacks on cable news shows catering to the left, where Obama and top lieutenants like Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have been excoriated for abandoning the public option in healthcare reform; for not moving faster to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay; and for failing, so far, to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Liberals have criticized Obama and his staff for moving to the middle and bargaining on healthcare reform, as well as the financial regulatory overhaul and even the $787 billion economic stimulus package, which some liberals said should have been larger.
Just last week, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow described Obama political adviser David Axelrod as a "human pretzel" for his explanation of the administration's position on gay marriage. Axelrod had explained that Obama opposes same-sex marriage but favors equal benefits for partners in gay relationships.
Attacks from liberal political groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), which raises money for liberal candidates and causes, are also frustrating to the White House.
Adam Green, one of PCCC's founders, repeatedly blasted Obama for a "loser mentality" during the healthcare debate, criticizing the president and Emanuel for not trying harder to include the public option in the final healthcare legislation. The group even ran ads accusing Obama of ignoring the will of the millions who voted for him by courting the support of Republican Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe.
PCCC is now pressing Obama to nominate Elizabeth Warren, a hero to the left, as the first head of the new consumer protection office created by the Wall Street reform bill.
While visibly frustrated, Gibbs did not specifically name any of the White Houses's liberal detractors by name.
Green said in an e-mailed statement Monday afternoon, "When Republicans opposed the stimulus and when Joe Lieberman opposed the overwhelmingly popular public option, the president could have barnstormed across their states and demanded they support policies that their constituents wanted - but instead he caved without a fight," Green said.
Gibbs's tough comments reflect frustration and some bafflement from the White House, which believes it has done a lot for the left.
In just over 18 months in office, Obama has passed healthcare reform, financial regulatory reform and fair-pay legislation for women, among other bills near and dear to liberals.
Obama is also overseeing the end of the Iraq war, with the U.S. on schedule to end its combat operations by the end of this month.
He's also added diversity to the Supreme Court by nominating two female justices, including the court's first Hispanic. Yet some liberal groups have criticized his nominees for not being liberal enough.
"There's 101 things we've done," said Gibbs, who then mentioned both Iraq and healthcare.
Gibbs said the professional left is not representative of the progressives who organized, campaigned, raised money and ultimately voted for Obama.
Progressives, Gibbs said, are the liberals outside of Washington "in America," and they are grateful for what Obama has accomplished in a shattered economy with uniform Republican opposition and a short amount of time.
Obama reached out to the left - including through a private lunch with Maddow and other liberal commentators - earlier this summer.
In late July, Obama made a surprise video appearance, with an assist from Maddow, at the NetRoots Nation convention in Las Vegas, where the professional left had gathered to grouse about its disappointment in the president.
"I hope you take a moment to consider all we've accomplished so far," Obama said, telling the impatient audience, "We're not done."
The lack of appreciation or recognition for what Obama has accomplished has left Gibbs and others in furious disbelief.
Larry Berman, an expert on the presidency and a political science professor at the University of California-Davis, said he has been surprised that liberals aren't more cognizant of the pragmatism Obama has had to employ to pass landmark reforms.
"The irony, of course, is that Gibbs's frustration reflects the fact that the conservative opposition has been so effective at undermining the president's popular approval," Berman said.
"And from Gibbs's perspective, and the White House perspective, they ought to be able to catch a break from people who, in their view, should be grateful and appreciative."