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Obama’s “Problems” With the Left

I want to follow up Nate’s comments about the tensions between liberals and President Obama in the wake of press secretary Robert Gibbs’ comments. Peter Daou, who is a veritable one-man panopticon of what’s published online, provides a nice summary of general disgruntlement (prior to Gibbs’ outburst) from the president’s left. In a recent column that also predates the Gibbs episode, my good friend Paul Waldman of the American Prospect weighed in on how liberals are “falling out of love” with the president. Meanwhile, since the Gibbs’ remarks, none other than Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison–an African American and [the lone*] one of two Muslim members of Congress–has called for Gibbs to step down; his bombastic colleague, Alan Grayson, agrees. In short, this controversy is heating up.

During a press briefing yesterday, the ever-glib Gibbs was asked about the matter by White House beat reporters:

Q: Just on another topic, what do you think the consequences should be of the comments that you made about this “professional left”?

MR. GIBBS: The consequences?

Q: Yes.

MR. GIBBS: Do you have anything in mind? (Laughter.)

Q: No supper.

Q: One House member suggested resignation, so I’m asking what you think your view is.

MR. GIBBS: I don’t plan on leaving, so–and there’s no truth to the rumor that I’ve added an inflatable exit to my office. (Laughter.)

There are a lot of moving parts to this issue of Obama’s problems with and from his left flank. I basically have four, related points to make. For the benefit of organizing and presenting my ideas, and to allow readers to more conveniently respond to one or more of them by number, let me set them out as bullet points:

1. The “professional Left” and the fuller set of people who are self-identified “liberals” are different entities–and the former isn’t necessarily a representative sample of the latter. But even if the so-called professional Left were some perfect subset ideologically, the reality is that liberal supporters of the president who are working and raising their families in Peoria or Portland or Plymouth aren’t in the day-to-day business of raising political objections to this or that part of the policy agenda. On the other hand, that’s what political professionals, whatever their ideological persuasion, do every day. So it should be no surprise that, whatever complaints or grumbling may arise, support for the president among self-described, rank-and-file liberals hasn’t much changed of late and remains strong.

2. There are policy decisions and then there is the matter of policy saliency. I just finished reading Jonathan Alter’s book about Obama’s first year, The Promise, and there is a moment recounted in there where the president and some of his advisers say “Shhh!” after a staffer notes that some piece of legislation (I think it was his education reform bill–man, my memory is going) will actually provide a lot of help the poor and underprivileged. The point of relaying this episode is that what a president accomplishes and what he trumpets are not always the same thing, and often for good reason(s). People with health care, for example, vote and contribute to campaigns at much higher rates than those who do not, and they were also more opposed to reform than those without health care. Though it’s not necessarily a mutually exclusive choice, if liberals had to choose between a president who passes centrist policies but talks like a tough liberal, and one who passes liberal policies but positions himself as a centrist, I presume most of them would choose the latter. Indeed, any principled liberal would have to prefer the latter. This is not to say it’s wrong to want the president to proudly proclaim himself and his policies as liberal. It’s just to say that, no matter how important words and labels are—and they are—deeds still trump them.

3. There is the intangible matter of how passionate a president gets—or rather, in this president’s case, how dispassionate Barack Obama so often remains. The book on this president’s temperament is pretty simple: He’s one cool cat. But maybe too cool? To be fair, there is value in any president, and particularly the first African American president, not looking too mercurial, whimsical or uneven tempered. That said, I think some–but certainly not all–of the growing tension between the “professional left” (again, whateverinthehell that is) and the White House is a matter of optics and emphasis—that is, saliency. They’d like to see the president prioritize some of their agenda, boast about it, and express a bit more passionate advocacy for those causes. Rather than the posture of an anemic, Spock-like defender of the latest, split-the-difference policy compromise, they want to see him get his back up every now and then–you know, like an angry cat does. And yes, they want to see him sometimes reject the half-loaf and do so as a warning signal that he won’t always compromise or search out the politically practical solution. Maybe I’m wrong about all of this, but my hunch is that little gestures—like an occasional “elections have consequences” statement, or a metaphorical nose punch for conservatives or the GOP—would make a big difference. It’s not like Obama doesn’t have the capacity; anyone who saw him live on the stump in 2008, as I did, knows what he is capable of.

4. If one listens closely, you notice that the president’s rhetoric and tone has started to change lately. Obviously, as the November election draws nearer the president will more often switch hats from commander-in-chief to partisan-in-chief. Hence, Obama’s recent shot across the bow about how the Democrats have been governing the past 18 months while the Republicans have been politicking. If you read recent speeches he’s given at fundraiser/rallies for candidates or to raise money for the party, you’ll notice a different tone. (Read down in the middle the part of the speech he delivered Monday at a DSCC fundraiser where Obama used the car-in-the-ditch metaphor to slam the GOP.) Yes, these speeches must be contextualized because they are delivered in an environment of high-level partisan supporters. But the words are public: The White House releases full text versions that anyone can read.

In sum, does Obama have a problem on the Left? Yes. Did Gibbs’ comments exacerbate those problems. Definitely yes. But is it a big problem? No–although that doesn’t mean this problem won’t hurt Democrats in the midterm if liberals are discouraged from turning out. I suspect we will hear some dog-whistle rhetoric and hear about some private gestures from the White House to the Left in the coming months.

*I stand–or rather, sit–corrected: Until alerted by a colleague, I was unaware that Andre Carson of Indiana is the other of two Muslims in Congress. Apologies to readers–and to Rep. Carson.