After one of the worst weeks of the Obama presidency, the White House might not be blamed for lashing out at the progressives who caused the president so much grief. Because this time, President Obama couldn’t simply blame Republicans. This time, it was his friends. Only 10 months after providing the ground forces to reelect him, the Left turned on its own—and won.
It fought him on military strikes against Syria, and it fought the man believed to be Obama’s first choice to head the Federal Reserve Board, Lawrence Summers. The final score was Progressives 2; President 0. But, unlike what happened in some earlier White Houses, there were no reprisals, no efforts to punish those who had strayed.
“I’m sure that folks inside the White House are not happy when people who worked for them come out and say they disagree with what they are doing,” says Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org, an 8 million-member organization that rallied the troops on both Syria and Summers. “But I have never had any angry phone calls or never found a dead horse head under my pillow when we come out against a position of the president.”
In fact, both sides quickly moved on, preferring to focus on upcoming legislative battles in which they will fight on the same side. But as they enter those battles, the president has been reminded that liberal groups can be formidable.
Progressive activists are “more broadly flexing their muscles right now,” Galland acknowledges. “We took on the elite circles and were proven correct,” says Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, calling this “a really great credibility moment for progressives.”
That this is damaging to the president is undeniable. His approval ratings are down, and his image as a leader is tarnished. But this spanking by his progressive friends does not mean Obama has lost their support. His base was doing what a base always does—staying more true to an issue than to one leader, and looking more long term than the current incumbent. “We are thinking beyond Obama,” Green told National Journal. “If he joins [us], that is fantastic. But if he doesn’t, we’re laying the groundwork for future victories even after his term.”
Since the political parties started weakening and surrendering their power to outside groups in the 1960s, the reality is that eight of the nine presidents have come under fierce fire from their base. Only Ronald Reagan was spared. But that was a unique situation. Reagan was guilty of apostasy in the eyes of the conservative base when he pushed through the largest-ever tax increase and offered only rhetoric on social issues. Yet his personal bond with the activists was so strong, they chose to blame his staff, imploring them to “Let Reagan be Reagan.” But every other president since Lyndon Johnson was targeted by friendly fire. Between Johnson and George H.W. Bush, five of six presidents even faced serious challenges for renomination from the base.
Now, it was Obama’s turn to suffer the wrath of the activists. There has always been some irritation on the part of his staff when they faced sniping from the base. Then-press secretary Robert Gibbs complained in 2010 about “the professional Left,” contending, “These people ought to be drug-tested.” But there was none of the heavy-handed attempts to bully the base seen in some past administrations.
On their part, the progressive leaders keep their criticisms focused on the issues. “When urging Democrats in Congress to oppose the policies of a Democratic president,” Green says, “it is easier for them to do that if it’s not personal and if it’s just on the merits of the issue and the will of the public. That’s where we try to keep it.”
The White House has also worked to keep the lines of communication open with progressive leaders. But the departure from the White House of the highly regarded Jon Carson has complicated the relationship. Director of public engagement in the first term, Carson was the president’s point man with the Left, convening a regular Tuesday meeting with progressives. The weekly meetings have continued since he departed to become executive director of Organizing for Action, the chief outside lobbying group for the president’s agenda. The White House, however, has not handed the liaison role to a particular aide.
Galland describes progressives’ relationship with Obama today as “respectful.” And leaders are quick to note areas where they are working with the White House, from health care to guns to a refusal to negotiate with Republicans on the debt limit. They prefer to downplay the split seen in the Syria and Summers fights. “How much loyalty you get from your base is a measure of how clear it is you have convinced people that you are moving in a certain direction,” says Robert Borosage, codirector of the Campaign for America’s Future. “Bases start to revolt either when they think the direction is wrong or you are compromising too much.”
These groups also dismiss the idea that Obama’s recent defeats show a president who is so weak he can be rolled by his base. “I don’t think anybody feels that way,” Borosage insists. “This is a president who is trying to forge his own course and faces a lot of pressures that are different from just pressure from progressives. I don’t think people feel he has round heels at all.” What happened this week is that the progressive opposition on Syria meshed with the overall public resistance to another military operation. “Can the president be rolled is the wrong question,” Galland says. “The right question is, is the president listening?”
This week, Obama didn’t have much choice. He couldn’t help but hear the loud chorus of no’s from his friends. Going forward, how he handles his restive base will to a great degree determine whether his second term is successful.