Where Was The "Professional Left" A Year Ago?

On May 12, 2009, I attended a briefing at the White House
as part of a group of grassroots activists and community artists. Mike
Strautmanis, Chief of Staff for the Office of Public Liaison and top
White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, made some remarks about how
community activists have a seat at the table as the Obama Administration
sets the agenda for change. I raised my hand. Sometimes, I said, the
role of advocates isn't to be inside at the table, but entirely outside
the room, "creating the political space needed for change".

Strautmanis bristled visibly. He criticized the "professional left"
(he didn't use this exact phrase, but it's what he meant) for
approaching the Obama Administration with an "outdated mindset", holding
protest signs outside the fence instead of realizing what it means to
be "inside the fence". At the same time, he not-so-subtly warned that
those who criticized the Administration, instead of cooperating, would
find themselves back on the outside.

Throughout early 2009, stories suggest Strautmanis' threat wasn't
hollow. The White House convened a weekly meeting called "Common
Purpose" at which DC progressive organizations were invited for what
many have called a "very one-way" conversation where the White House
dictated its agenda and appealed to the professional left for back-up.
In April, 2009, according to people who were at one Common Purpose
meeting, White House advisors told the "professional left" to tone down
rhetoric about huge bonuses paid to AIG executives. The left, in
general, toned it down.

In August 2009,
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel made a rare appearance at a
Common Purpose meeting to scold progressive groups in Washington for
attacking conservative Democrats in Congress who were obstructing
progressive policies on Capitol Hill. Emmanuel called the strategy
"f*ing retarded" and ordered the professional left to cease and desist.
Much of the left did, in fact, stop the attacks on Blue Dog Democrats.

The under-reported scandal here is not that the White House tried to
control and muzzle the professional left. The scandal is that the left,
for the most part, complied.

Firedog Lake blogger Jane Hamsher has been almost singularly brave in covering this. Back in April 2009, Hamsher wrote:

"There's a big problem right now with the traditional liberal
interest groups sitting on the sidelines around major issues because
they don't want to buck the White House for fear of getting cut out of
the dialogue, or having their funding slashed."

I don't share White House Spokesperson Robert Gibbs' outrage that the
"professional left" is currently being too critical of President Obama.
What I am outraged about is that the professional left wasn't more
critical of Obama a year ago.

As I have written before,
President Obama's election was historic. Unfortunately, while
progressives arguably laid the ideological groundwork for his victory,
Obama pretty much won with his own charisma and field infrastructure.
The left, with the possible exception of MoveOn and SEIU, could take
little concrete credit for Obama's election. This, combined with an
overarching and persistent lack of ambition and bravery that plagues the
American left today, rendered Washington's non-profit liberal elite
more than grateful to be lap dogs on a short leash held by the White

Throughout the fall of 2009, while progressives outside Washington
feared the chances for single-payer health care and humane immigration
reform were slipping away, professional progressive advocates in
Washington hung all their hopes on the White House. I was in several
meetings through the early fall of 2009 in which DC liberal leaders
tamped down on any plans that might "upset the White House", a phrase
used on at least on two occasions. It was not whispered with
embarrassment or secrecy. The professional left firmly believed that
President Obama would carry our agenda.

This belief started to fade as the fight for the public option was
not only lost but when it became clear that the President and his team
had sold the public option out early on in a bid to please the
pharmaceutical and health insurance industries. Right around then, in
early 2010, you could literally watch the professional left abandon its
doe-eyed rhetoric and find its teeth - and moral compass - again. Then
came disappointment around immigration and climate change, which the
White House initially pledged to take the lead on but then backed away
from, and the left's collective crush on Obama cracked faster than his
approval ratings. Whether on the topic of off-shore drilling or
deportation rates and border crackdowns, progressive advocates have been
much less shy lately in telling Obama what-for.

Yet all evidence suggest that, from early on, President Obama failed
to definitively side with ordinary Americans in the struggle against the
tyrannical interests of big business and Wall Street. John Judis
writes in his excellent analysis in The New Republic:

"Obama's policy followed the same swerving course as his rhetoric.
One week, he would favor harsh restrictions on bank and
insurance-company bonuses, but, the next week, he would waver; one week,
he would support legislation allowing bankruptcy judges to reduce the
amount that homeowners threatened with foreclosure owed the banks; the
next week, he would fail to protest when bank lobbyists pressured the
Senate to kill these provisions. But, more importantly, Obama-in sharp
contrast to Roosevelt in his first months-failed to push Congress to
immediately enact new financial regulations or even to set up a
commission to investigate fraud."

Perhaps if the "professional left" had been doing its job and holding
the President accountable early on - not in the spirit of destroying
his presidency but, rather, strengthening it - there would not have been
such a vacuum of public frustration into which Right wing critics could
easily step. The White House was naive to not distinguish between
constructive criticism and destructive criticism at a time when
listening to the former might have helped avoid much of the calamity in
which the Presidency now finds itself. Instead, by trying to be
superficial friends with both sides, Obama and his team have ostensibly
made enemies on all sides of the aisle. Except with big business and
Wall Street. They're still good friends with them.

The irony in all of this is that the left is now blaming the Obama
Administration for public discontent with liberal policies and
solutions. A year ago, the professional left ceded all responsibility
to the White House. And now they're ceding all the blame. And that's
where Mr. Gibbs' characterization is really wrong: There's nothing
professional about that!

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.