Liberals Want to Save Obama — From Himself

Hill progressives are relishing their recent victories, but they’re quick to say they’re only looking out for the president’s best interests.

Rep. Raul Grijalva speaks to the crowd on the Capitol lawn.
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Sept. 19, 2013, 3:13 a.m.

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.

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