How the White House Misjudged the Political Landscape

As progressives on and offline continue to debate the future of the
health care reform bill, attention is finally shifting to the underlying
factors that have gotten us into this mess in the first place: namely,
the mistakes of the White House. Meteor
Blades at Daily Kos
asks the right question - why is it that
progressives are getting blamed for this? Others reply that Obama does
the best he can, and that to avoid a collapse in the 2010 elections,
Democrats and progressives need to "point out all the good" that Obama
has done so far.

But that isn't enough. The fact is that Democratic electeds, the
president first and foremost, have completely misunderstood American
politics in 2009. I'm not talking just about the failed and senseless
efforts at bipartisanship, though Obama's underestimation of the level
of control Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the teabaggers have over the
Republican Party hasn't helped.

Instead I'm talking about the inability of the White House to
understand the changing nature of the American left. The late 20th
century experience of a marginalized and weak left has been replaced
during the 2000s by a much more powerful and popular movement. The White
House's unwillingness to treat that movement as an equal partner is
damaging not only the health care bill, but the political fate of
Democrats in 2010 and, potentially, 2012.

The collapse
of support for the bill
reveals a deeper and growing divide, an
unwillingness of most Americans to embrace a flawed process. In
particular, progressives - activists and voters - need a clear, signal
victory in order to avoid complete 1994-style demoralization. Something
big and bold, something clearly progressive that forced moderates and
conservatives to concede something important, something that will give
more people a reason to rally to Obama's defense when he is in a
difficult place.

Comprehensive immigration reform along the lines of the Grijalva
would achieve this. Repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell would
achieve this (and repeal of DOMA would be a grand slam). Firing Geithner
and Summers would achieve this. Breaking up some of the big banks would
achieve this. And yes, a public option of some kind would have achieved

Instead we have a White House and a Senate Democratic leadership that
still believes we live in the 1990s, where the "left" is weak and has
little popular support. They've not understood the transformative effect
of the 2000s and Bush in particular, who helped create a genuine
American left with real and widespread popular support for the first
time in 40 years.

The White House does not view progressives as equal partners, as
people who have legitimate concerns and priorities that need to be
included in any deal. They still take the Clintonian view that the
"left" can be appeased either through a few nice words in a speech, and
if that fails, can be crammed down by being told they're wreckers, being
told this is the best progressives can get, being told that
progressives are irrelevant (even while the WH's defensive actions show
they're anything but irrelevant).

The White House hasn't yet grasped that some basic and timeless rules
of politics still apply: that you have to deliver something to your
supporters to keep them on board. Something that excites them, something
that gets them motivated. Ever since 1993 Democratic presidential
Administrations have assumed those rules are in abeyance, where
supporters will stay on board out of fear of Republicans, unwilling to
act on their beliefs or frustrations out of an internalized belief that
America is a conservative place hostile to progressive values.

The Bush years destroyed those internalized frustrations.
Congressional Democratic support for the Iraq War destroyed what existed
of progressive acceptance of that Clintonite strategy, and freed the
left to actually feel confident in asserting its own values regardless
of what the Democratic leadership says, because any trust in that
leadership was destroyed in 2002. Obama understood this out of necessity
during the primary, when he had to embrace this to defeat Hillary
Clinton. But once that was achieved, he went right back to the old Bill
Clinton strategy of appeasing the center-right and assuming progressives
would simply go along with it - and once elected, Obama surrounded
himself with old Clinton hands who espoused the same basic view of

There were a number of instances in 2009 that showed Obama doesn't
quite grasp political realities, and the snowballing collapse of health
care reform is just one element of that misunderstanding.

Until he sees progressives as genuine partners, Obama will face
declining political fortunes. That's his problem, something he and his
team should and eventually will address. For our part, progressives
should concern ourselves with how to further build up our own
institutions and power, instead of wasting time trying to prop up a weak
president who views us and our views and our work with contempt.

Robert Cruickshank is the Public Policy Director at the Courage Campaign, a 700,000
member organizing network based in California that pushes for
progressive change. He is also an editor at Calitics, a blog focusing on
California politics.

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