Frustrated liberals voice discontent with Obama

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 18, 2009 

WASHINGTON — On health care, the war in Afghanistan, civil liberties and the economy, President Barack Obama is meeting growing resistance from the very group that propelled his election last year: liberal Democrats.

Their most pressing concern is the health care legislation now before the Senate, a package that lacks the government-run insurance plan, or public option, that liberals badly wanted.

Even organized labor, one of the president's most loyal, most powerful constituencies, is making it clear that unions feel Obama has compromised too much.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka calls the Senate plan "inadequate" and "too kind to the insurance industry."

Andrew Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, told its members that Obama "must remember his own words from the campaign. His call of 'Yes We Can' was not just to us, not just to the millions of people who voted for him, but to himself."

Liberals' frustrations go beyond health care.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., this week warned Obama not to expect her to deliver him the votes to fund his proposed troop buildup in Afghanistan; he'll have to make the case himself.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have made it clear they want more help for distressed minority communities as part of any financial regulatory overhaul.

Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the center-left Brookings Institution, chalks up the pushback to "impatience."

"They're worried the president is losing touch with the progressive grass roots," he said.

Given a choice, most presidents would take party unity over public infighting.

Still, Obama aides suggest at this point he's not overly concerned. White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the president "never said that bringing change to Washington and confronting challenges that Washington has ignored for too long would be easy."

Earnest said Obama "has succeeded in working with Democrats and Republicans to make progress on health insurance reform, stabilize a financial system that was on the brink of collapse and lay the foundation for a new, stronger American economy."

Yet Obama must confront the political landscape strategically as he transitions from his first year in office to a year with midterm congressional elections that threaten his party's majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate:

Is the liberal dissent sufficient to cost him key votes, weaken him politically, or reduce voter turnout next year? Or can Obama and endangered moderate and conservative Democrats in Congress use vocal liberal criticism to their advantage, if centrist voters think liberals' disapproval must mean they're doing something right?

Will Marshall, the president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, said either outcome is possible, but it's too soon to tell.

"If there's a profound feeling of disillusionment; if there's a sense President Obama wasn't faithful to enough of the ideas that motivated liberals to support him, that in the end he's too pragmatic, that could depress (voter) turnout. It's always a risk," Marshall said.

"Balancing that risk is if President Obama can succeed, unite this fractious party and rack up major legislative accomplishments that looked unsolvable, that will help to offset ideological disappointment."

On health care, Obama faces liberal fury for his willingness to dump the public option and a Medicare expansion to survive a Senate filibuster. A key vote on cutting off debate is expected early Monday.

There's also concern about who will pay the cost for more comprehensive coverage. Liberal House members, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., want the tax burden on the wealthy but fear Obama may let the Senate shift it to the middle class.

Many liberals are also angry that Obama and Senate Democratic leaders bowed to Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrat-turned-independent who represents a state heavy with insurance interests and helped kill the public option and the Medicare expansion.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal group, has been running a television ad sharply critical of Lieberman and its members urge that he be stripped of any leadership responsibilities. The group is also going after White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who's heavily involved in health care deal making. Committee spokesman Adam Green called Emanuel "small-thinking" and "ready-to-cave."

On war policy, meanwhile, liberal critics disagree with the president's plans to send 30,000 to 35,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and have taken to the floors of Congress to protest.

"I rise today in favor of peace,' said Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., who told his colleagues, "America cannot afford a war that does not make us safer."

Obama also faces another war-related dilemma, involving his plan to buy a mostly empty maximum-security state prison in his home state of Illinois and transfer terrorism suspects there and close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Civil libertarians want Guantanamo closed, after harshly criticizing the Bush administration for detainee abuses. They're angry, however, that Obama is poised to continue, in Illinois, the practice of "indefinite detention" of detainees who can't be prosecuted. Many also disagree with the administration's willingness to try suspected war criminals with military commissions instead of civilian courts.

The risk in losing any Democratic support on Afghanistan and Guantanamo is that, on the other end of the spectrum, Republican leaders are themselves threatening to withhold war funding if the Guantanamo prisoners are transferred to U.S. soil — and Obama needs Republican support to pass emergency war funding.

Whether any of these concerns put Obama in political peril remains an open question.

"At the moment, liberals have nowhere to go. Obama is the best they have," said West. "But the problem comes in the long run, when he comes up for re-election in 2012."

West recalled how conservative commentator Pat Buchanan challenged incumbent President George H. W. Bush in 1992. Buchanan lost, but forced Bush to spend resources early and to run as more of a conservative than he may have wanted to — and Bush lost the general election.

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