No Horse Heads in the Bed

The White House isn’t happy with the Left’s recent rebelliousness, but has no plans to punish progressive groups. They’ll be needed down the road.

Actress Daryl Hannah, and other activists take part in a demonstration in front of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, calling on President Barack Obama and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to ban fracking, or gas drilling, on federal land. 
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George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Sept. 19, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

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.

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