Feet of Clay: Obama’s Base Politics
The left’s frustration with President Obama has been much discussed of late. But their disappointment is nothing new, and shouldn’t be much of a surprise, either.
In March 2009, just three months after Obama took office, liberal economist Paul Krugman claimed to be in “despair” over administration policy. At this early stage, though, few progressives were so despondent. Most, in fact, expected left-wing ascendency in the “Age of Obama.” And in the new president, they had found their champion.
Today, however, much has changed. Many on the left now doubt Obama’s fealty to their cause. His supposed capitulation to Republicans and the continuation of key Bush policies has even been characterized around the blogosphere as treachery. The continued operation of Guantánamo Bay, the Patriot Act, the surge in Afghanistan and the bank bailouts help explain their anger. To them, despite the administration’s strong moves on gay rights, labor power, environmental policy, financial regulation and feminist causes, he is still guilty of ideological impurity. Calls for a primary challenge are arguably an outgrowth of this.
Now, it is true that a serious challenge from the left is unlikely and, therefore, it may be tempting to dismiss the discussion as ephemeral, even irrelevant. That would be a mistake. Its proponents include iconic liberal thinkers and academics like Gore Vidal and Cornell West. Their involvement speaks to the high level of disillusionment felt among the very foot soldiers and activists Obama will need in 2012. And many of them want to use the primary process to force Obama sharply leftward, lest progressivism be “betrayed“ further.
Surely the committed left’s frequent excoriation must trouble the White House. That their liberal constituency is decidedly more vocal in its criticism, its attacks more virulent and public, only undermines Obama’s fading re-election hopes. Primary challenge or not, the president knows he can ill afford a protracted fight with his base. Not when his job approval suffers persistent erosion; not when the majority of voters, including an increasing number of Obama’s own supporters, disapprove of his handling of the economy and the country’s course; not when unemployment remains so high.
For the president, then, the inescapable trends of new lows and fleeing independents underscore his ineffectiveness and profound political vulnerability. But among key democratic constituencies, support has fallen to a level which few could have expected.
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Predictably, the White House refuses to publicly acknowledge the corrosion of base support, maintaining that its core constituencies are “mobilized behind the president.” Democratic consultant Jamal Simmons, too, echoes much the same theme. The left, he insists, is “unified.” These claims willfully ignore the evidence. Consider: In 2008, candidate Obama carried 56 percent of the women’s vote. Today, however, just 41 percent approve. In the Jewish community, the president once enjoyed an 83 percent approval rating; it has since dropped to 54 percent. Among Latino voters, just 48 percent now approve—a 12-point decline since January. Obama captured two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in 2008.
Obama’s rating amongst African-Americans, however, is most startling. It was but 5 months ago that more than 8 in 10 expressed their strong support. Now only 58 percent strongly approve, according to a recent Washington Post poll. Under Obama, African-Americans have not fared well. Black unemployment stands at 16 percent.
Worse for the White House, there is a definable enthusiasm deficit within their party across all constituencies. According to Gallup, only 45 percent are excited about voting in 2012. In 2008, nearly 80 percent were. Republicans, in contrast, are far more energized. This cannot be welcome news. In fact, even Ed Schultz, MSNBC’s leftist flamethrower, acknowledged the electoral consequences of an anemic base. In a “red alert“ to Democrats, he warned that the party would be badly beaten unless its voters were equally motivated. For Schultz, “sitting on the sidelines is not an option.” But rallying cries like this may not be enough even as the election season moves forward.
MoveOn, for example, a far-left organization that mobilized a surge of volunteers and votes for Democrats in 2008, now seems to have buyer’s remorse. Obama’s political decisions, lamented as not liberal enough, have compelled the group to reevaluate its stand with the president. Justin Ruben, MoveOn’s executive director, made plain the state of play. Its members, he says, “are wondering how they can ever work for President Obama’s re-election, or make the case for him to their neighbors.”
Labor unions have also recalculated, shifting resources away from Democrats, who are increasingly seen as not representing their interests. In fact, union contributions to congressional candidates, the vast majority of which go to Democrats, have declined almost 40 percent since 2009. While this reflects the recession’s strain on union finances, it is also an unmistakable indication of labor discontent. It also reflects a larger strategy now in its initial stages.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, the leader of the largest labor union in the United States, is currently building a political organization that intends to operate independently from the Democratic Party. This effort could have profound political implications both in the near and long term. It is well known, for instance, that Democrats at all levels of government heavily rely on union cash for their campaigns. This move means even less labor money for their party machine. And, if labor were to field candidates of its own, they could split the liberal vote, tipping tight races to Republicans. A nightmarish scenario for Democrats, who will do all they can to prevent this outcome.
At present, though, as Obama confronts leftist discontent, whether labor or otherwise, he faces a real dilemma. The broad electorate has long soured on his policies. His approval rating stands at 43 percent. Support among independents hovers in the low 30s. The latest CNN survey shows that 65 percent disapprove of his economic leadership, while a CBS poll finds that only 19 percent approve of the nation’s current course. Tacking leftward in this climate isn’t likely to be politically successful, but the president must still be mindful of his base. No doubt his recent surge of class-warfare rhetoric is, in part, an attempt to appeal the party’s core. So is his recent endorsement of a plan to impose a surtax on the wealthy—a plan that will never pass, but is nevertheless used as another means to portray the successful as villainous “corporate jet owners.” That such a policy would do nothing to create jobs, broaden the tax base or grow the economy is unimportant to Obama; he is already in campaign mode. At one top in this month’s promotional bus tour, for example, he claimed that the Republican jobs plan amounts to “dirtier air, dirtier water, less [sic] people with health insurance.” Such bluster is just red meat for the faithful, but it serves a purpose. The White House knows Democrats may not have a real alternative during the primary season, but many could elect to stay home on Election Day.
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The larger question, though, is this: How did leftist disillusionment become so politically potent that it now undermines Obama’s 2012 prospects? The answer is a multifaceted one, and some historical context is useful.
In 1992 the Democratic Party had been out of the White House for 12 years, and was desperately in search of a winner. When Bill Clinton was chosen, a politician with moderate instincts, progressives knew who they had. They were under no delusions about a “liberal ascendancy.” Nevertheless, his victory did advance progressive philosophy in no small measure with the placement of Justices Ginsburg and Breyer on the Supreme Court.
In contrast, for President Obama, expectations were decidedly different—and unrealistically high, sent soaring by both his messianic rhetoric and the left’s misreading of the public mood. They assumed that widespread fatigue with Republicans, conservatism and all things Bush meant Americas were ready to embrace liberal ideology. It didn’t quite work out that way. America remains a center-right country.
Worse for Obama, many leftists believe that he deceived them by campaigning as a “transformational” progressive figure while governing from the “corporate center right.” Indeed, Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, even suggests that progressives are not the president’s “real base.” Instead, Rothschild claims it is Wall Street. While such an assertion strains credulity, it’s worth noting that many leftists view Obama’s corporate ties and powerful Wall Street donors with disdain. Incidentally, those ties may make it difficult for Democrats to benefit from the left-wing Occupy Wall Street protests now making headlines.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Rothschild and his ilk believe Obama has abandoned them. On health care, the lack of a public option and the failure to push for a signal payer system is often mentioned, as is the “small” size of the $830 billion stimulus package. “Capitulation” on tax cuts for “millionaires and billionaires” is seen as another slight, while the decision to not move on a proposed EPA regulation left liberals dazed and fuming. His foreign policy is seen as equally grievous, and the list goes on.
So what to make of these developments? Like labor unions who seek independence from Democrats with the creation of their own political conduit, the progressive-minded are also distancing themselves, if not from the Democratic Party, then certainly from President Obama. They simply don’t trust him.
They must distance themselves, of course. For leftists will never concede their message to be unpopular, or their ideology ruinous. They blame the messenger, even if that messenger is Barack Obama, arguably the first president to so closely share their convictions.
Brendon S. Peck holds a Master of Arts in History and Political science from the College of Saint Rose and has completed graduate work at Columbia University. He is a freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.