Heading into this fall's fiscal fights and beyond, the White House will have to worry not just about recalcitrant Republicans, but also about dissent from members of the emboldened left flank of Obama's own party, who are tired of being taken for granted. The liberals already have a string of victories to show for their trouble. It's not about opposing the president, or wanting to embarrass him, they say. It's that sometimes, "we need to save him from himself," as one Capitol Hill Democrat put it.
"We reached a turning point, and we have to speak for our base that isn't being heard any more," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the cochairman of the 71-member Progressive Caucus. "There isn't unanimity anymore; you can't deliver a bloc.... Blind loyalty—I don't think that's an option anymore. People are going assert what they think is best for their base, their district, and more importantly, how the Democrats are going to look going into 2014."
In caucus meetings, Grijalva said, he has seen "agonizing" and even "anger" toward the president in recent months, adding that some members expressed frustration over a "litmus test" in the early years of the Obama administration to support the president "100 percent of the time on everything."
Last week, a knot of progressive senators quietly torpedoed the potential nomination of Lawrence Summers to head the Federal Reserve Board; the week before that, they teamed up with tea partiers to scuttle the president's authorization for intervention in Syria; and the month before that, they were some of the most vocal critics of the National Security Agency's domestic spying operations.
But the fight that galvanized members in the progressive fifth column and gave them their first taste of victory came in the spring, when liberal furor succeeded in getting the White House to backpedal on the president's proposal to trim Social Security benefits by changing the way inflation is calculated. "We're winning some, and that's encouraging," Grijalva said.
Why the stepped-up opposition? First, there's the policy. No one has been more willing to confront the president than Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., the colorful bomb-thrower who lost his seat in 2010 only to regain it in 2012. Asked about the difference between his two terms, Grayson replied, "What's changed is the president's positions. I'm reminded of the old Reagan saying: 'I didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.' "
In the first term, there was the fight over the public option in the health care bill (a loss for progressives), Obama's support for offshore drilling (a loss), and the 2011 fight over the debt ceiling (another loss). But the past six months have been a different story altogether. "When the president adopts an explicitly right-wing goal, like cutting Social Security benefits," Grayson said, "progressives will let it be known that they cannot support it, and in fact have to actively oppose it."
Feeding into the resistance is a more pragmatic political view. Progressives aren't waiting by their phones for the president anymore. The thinking goes like this: If the White House didn't help me in 2010—when Obama made a point of sitting out the bruising midterms—or in 2012, why would I think I'll get help in 2014? More to the point, can the president hurt me next year if I oppose him? Most progressives seem to think the answer is no. And without the need to reelect the president, liberals no longer see the same imperative they did earlier in sticking by Obama.
But the divide goes beyond politics. Obama has never been a fan of the kind of person-to-person outreach to Capitol Hill that builds goodwill. There have been little snubs from day one, like the fact that he met with every other major Democratic group before finally meeting with the Progressive Caucus, or even that he rarely invites progressive lawmakers on his frequent golf outings (it sounds petty, but when else do you get four hours to bend the president's ear one-on-one?). "This is kind of the chickens coming up to roost, as far as their aloofness to Congress," a Senate Democratic aide said of the White House.
With a head of steam built up, the next item on the insurgents' agenda is making sure sequestration doesn't get cemented in during the upcoming fiscal talks. After that, two ambitious goals include pushing the president to kill the Keystone XL pipeline, and trying to stymie his efforts on international trade. "There's going to be a very big fight over the Keystone pipeline, and there's going to be a very big fight over the trade agreements; and, in both cases, the president is committed to the antiprogressive side," Grayson said.
But despite it all, Obama is still liberals' president, and they don't want to see him go. They just want him to be better. "Sometimes I worry he's beginning to lose sight of the people who elected him," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Added Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who opposed the Summers nomination: "It's important for the White House to get that kind of feedback."
By opening a left flank, progressives say they're actually helping Obama in terms of his negotiating position with Republicans, because it allows him to look more reasonable when he comes to the center. "It's a tactical issue," said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. There's a "constructive tension" between the liberal bloc and the White House, he said, but "we work together hand in glove with the president."
The liberals realize there's only so much the president can do, given the inflexible Republican opposition. "We all have to understand that you could have a president who combines the best qualities of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy, and there would not be enough gravitational pull from that person to bring [House Speaker] John Boehner and company into Earth's orbit," Welch said. "A lot of us in the House are ready to pick up the battering ram and just try to bust through and make progress, but we just don't have the votes."
So to the Left, it's not an insurrection, it's an intervention: Sit down, Mr. President. We'll put some coffee on.
This article appears in the September 20, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.