Some Liberals Frustrated by Pace of Obama's Change
MINNEAPOLIS — What's a frustrated liberal to do? Democrats on the ideological left are grousing that President Barack Obama is just not that into them, and they're soul searching at a big weekend meeting about the strained political relationship as he seeks re-election.
Might they stay home when he asks them to vote for him again?
"We were promised he would be our fierce advocate. And I don't think he has been fierce and I don't think he likes to advocate very much," said John Aravosis, an editor with AMERICAblog who has written about gay rights issues.
But Obama's advisers hope that between now and November 2012 the president can persuade this critical part of his base to turn out in droves again, and the wooing by aides was well under way Friday.
"I promise he is as frustrated as you are," White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer told about 2,400 bloggers and activists attending the annual Netroots Nation conference. He assured them they were "a very important part of the coalition that got him here."
Not that it feels that way for many liberals who consider Obama's record a mixed bag at best when it comes to championing their causes.
They see him as being too willing to compromise with Republicans on such issues as dropping the proposed public option for the health insurance overhaul and extending George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest. They're pleased he signed a law to repeal the ban on openly gay service members, but many feel that happened only after incessant pressure on the White House.
Others complain that Obama has embraced big business, unimpressed by Wall Street regulation changes and annoyed that Obama appointed General Electric chief executive Jeff Immelt to lead a presidential advisory council on competitiveness even as the company avoided paying federal taxes in 2010.
One panel at the conference reflected the rift: "What to Do When Your President Is Just Not That Into You." Moderator Joan McCarter jokingly called it "The 'president isn't our boyfriend anymore' panel."
Taken together, it all raises the question of whether liberals, who always play important fundraising and volunteering roles for Democratic presidential candidates, will be energized when Obama runs for re-election next year or whether they will stay home on Election Day and deny Obama a critical contingent of grass-roots foot-soldiers.
It's not as if liberals are likely to back someone else. Obama doesn't have a serious Democratic primary opponent, and liberal views are ideologically opposed to many espoused by the Republican Party's presidential candidates.
"We have to hold this administration accountable, but we will get a choice between President Obama and our worst nightmare," said Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association.
To a certain degree, there's a political upside for Obama if liberals are cranky — he may appear to be more a centrist candidate and that may make him more attractive to the independent voters who often decide close elections.
Obama advisers acknowledge the base is frustrated, but they expect liberal voters to rally around the president in next year's election.
"While there is always more work we can do and we take absolutely nothing for granted and will work every single day, we have very good support from his base and are ready to build on that," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Despite the complaining, liberals' impressions of Obama have not slipped in recent months. But they didn't improve, either, following the killing of Osama bin Laden, as happened among other ideological groups.
In the May AP-GfK poll, 62 percent of liberals rated Obama's presidency as outstanding or above average, statistically similar to August 2010. Among moderates and conservatives, however, Obama's ratings on this question ticked upward. Likewise, Obama's overall approval ratings among liberals have hovered around 80 percent for the past year in AP-GfK polling, with no discernible bump following the al-Qaida leader's death.
The reception Pfeiffer got when he was interviewed onstage by Kaili Joy Gray of the Daily Kos website underscored the tension between Obama and some liberals.
Questioned about the president's policies on the economy, gay rights and tax cuts, Pfeiffer argued that Obama has worked hard to get his agenda through a divided Congress during a time of hardship.
Pfeiffer said the White House would serve as a check against Republican efforts to undercut Medicare, privatize Social Security and repeal the health care overhaul. Obama, he said, would work to bring wireless technology to rural areas, develop alternative energy sources and offer tax incentives for small business.
But the audience was clearly skeptical. The interview grew tense at times, and Pfeiffer was booed when he responded to a question about a 1996 legislative-race questionnaire in which Obama had said he supported gay marriage. Pfeiffer said someone else had filled out the questionnaire and Obama was "evolving on the issue" along with the rest of the nation.
Gray also pushed Pfeiffer for details on whether the administration would offer a comprehensive job-creation bill. "With a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, why wouldn't we have a jobs bill?" she said icily.
Frustration, if not anger, was clear.
At one panel, Dan Choi, an Iraq War veteran who was discharged for being gay, ripped up an Obama campaign pamphlet and tossed it into the air when an aide to Obama's political organization told him that the aide personally wasn't supportive of gay marriage.
"I believe that I'm an equal citizen," Choi scolded the staffer.
Elsewhere at the conference, liberals questioned the president's commitment to the DREAM Act, which would give a path to legal status for young people who were brought into the United States without documents as children and who either plan to attend college or join the military. It stalled in Congress last year.
Some activists want Obama to use his administrative powers to protect those who would be covered under the legislation from being deported. And they complain about the Obama administration's deportation of nearly 400,000 immigrants in 2010, a record, while noting his efforts to court Hispanics as he seeks a second term.
"Obama has the guts to deport our mothers, deport our fathers, deport our people and then come to us and say 'I want your vote'? Please," said Felipe Matos, a Miami immigration activist.
For all the griping, many liberals here appear resigned.
They know Obama is their only option to ensure Democrats continue to control the White House. They point to efforts in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere to strip away collective bargaining rights from most public workers as an example of what could happen if Republicans win.
Said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a one-time Democratic Party chairman: "The alternative is in clear sight."
Associated Press Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.