For disenchanted liberals, Obama may still be the only choice

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 10, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Environmentalists spent a week outside the White House courting arrest and bellowing disappointment at President Barack Obama for considering a pipeline that would expand the flow of oil from Canada.

Activists at a progressive gathering cheered and shouted "amen" as a 2008 Obama supporter said she sends campaign fundraisers a list of her grievances with the president every time they call asking for a campaign contribution.

The ardor that propelled President Barack Obama to the White House has eroded for some in his liberal base: environmentalists are furious at his decision to scrap clean air regulations; gay activists are disappointed he hasn't embraced gay marriage, and African-Americans say he hasn't done enough to alleviate joblessness in their community.

But there appears to be little appetite for a primary challenger within the Democratic party. Ralph Nader and Obama critic Cornel West floated the idea a month ago. But to date no one has picked up the challenge, and analysts say that's not a surprise: Without an obvious superstar, Democrats are more worried about helping a conservative Republican than forcing Obama to defend his presidency to his party.

"A lot of liberals are not very enthused about helping Obama, but they certainly don't want to help the Republicans," said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and public affairs. "Fear of the right is stronger than fear of the center in the Democratic party."

A look back suggests primary challenges can be a "debilitating exercise" for presidents, says Rhodes Cook, a political analyst and editor of a newsletter that bears his name.

Since presidential primaries started a century ago, Cook said five presidents — most recently George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter — have lost their bids for a second term after first fending off a primary challenge.

"If you have a checklist of factors for reelection, no significant primary opposition is often a key one," Cook said. "Presidents almost always win re-nomination regardless of the competition, but almost invariably lose reelection if they have a significant primary challenge."

Cook said the historic nature of Obama's presidency also insulates him from a primary challenger.

"The party has an investment, he's supposedly moving us into the next chapter of America history," he said. "I don't think that a party that prides itself on diversity would be interested in soiling that legacy."

Obama has looked to shore up his base in recent weeks, sharpening his rhetoric by calling out Republicans for blocking what he says is a jobs plan that will give a necessary jolt to a slumping economy.

Some progressives said they fear the tough new talk isn't enough.

"Is he doing this because the election is coming up and we need to hear the 'Yes, we can?' " asked Evonne Tisdale, a community organizer with the Center for Community Change in Raleigh, N.C. She was one of thousands of activists attending a three-day "Take Back the American Dream" conference that sought to re-energize disenchanted liberals. "We had a lot of really high hopes. I'm not sure about getting them back."

For Tisdale and many progressive Democrats, the disappointment set in at the beginning — when President Obama dropped a push for a public option during the health care debate. They were further disillusioned by what they say is his tendency to compromise with Republicans who show no interest in working with him. Others want an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The White House bristles at suggestions that Obama's not delivered. Asked at a recent briefing about whether the administration had given in on health care, White House press secretary Jay Carney retorted that "after 100 years of effort, ensuring that 30 million Americans get insured, ensuring that people with preexisting conditions get insurance coverage, ensuring that...millions of young Americans get to stay on their parents' policies — that's a lot more than half a loaf."

Susan Eleuterio, an enthusiastic Obama supporter and donor in 2008, has found another way to make her displeasure known. When fundraisers call she attaches a list of her concerns with a contribution — one that she says is smaller than her contributions in 2008.

"I feel like they need to know because I'm not sure that they're listening,' she said.

Yet Eleuterio's not angry enough to peel the Obama sticker off her laptop, though she's been tempted.

"I get frustrated, but then I'm very cognizant of what he's up against and I feel for him," she said. "I know they put him through the ringer, but it feels like we always end up settling."

Obama acknowledged at a fundraiser last week that energizing his base is a major goal.

"We've got to make sure that we feel the same urgency in this election as we did back in 2008," he said in Dallas. "Now, it won't be as sexy as in 2008. Back then, I didn't have any gray hair and was all kind of fresh and new. And now I'm dinged up. Gone through some battles."

At a Human Rights Campaign dinner last week, Obama looked to counter disappointment with his reluctance thus far to endorse same sex marriage by giving a litany of accomplishments, including giving gay soldiers the right to serve openly.

Obama sought to contrast himself with the Republican candidates, taking them to task for not standing up for a gay soldier when audience members at a recent GOP debate booed him. "You want to be Commander-in-Chief?" Obama cried as the crowd leapt to its feet. "You can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States, even when it's not politically convenient."

The enthusiastic response suggested he'd made inroads.

"I'm thrilled with him," said Robyn Zeiger, a licensed clinical therapist in Silver Spring, Md., adding that, "I do believe he's evolved" on the marriage question. She married her partner of 37 years, Stacey Williams, in the District of Columbia and Williams said Obama had accomplished a lot — considering the opposition he's faced.

For Colby Silver, 22, of Boston, the bold candidate he voted for in 2008 has changed. But Silver said he was encouraged by Obama's call for Congress to scrap the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same sex marriages. He suggested that what he's heard recently from a "less cautious" Obama has helped make up for some of his disappointment.

"I think he's less worried about pleasing everyone," Silver said.

There are other signs that Obama's nod to the left and his sharpened tone have made inroads.

AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka, who suggested over the summer that the union could stay neutral in the election, gave the president's jobs pitch a rousing endorsement at the progressive conference.

"Like many of you in this room, I've been one of the first to call out President Obama when I thought it was needed," Trumka said. "But when he's doing the right thing, when he's doing the courageous thing, it's time for us to have his back and push that bill through and put people back to work."

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a member of the House's Democratic Progressive Caucus, pleaded with attendees to look beyond their disappointment with Obama.

"We could spend our time griping about the Obama administration and many of those things might, would be legitimate," she said, adding a word of caution: "If people are not energized and mobilized, all you have to do is watch five minutes of one of the Republican debates. The very idea that those people aspire to be president of the United States is horrifying. If we let those people win, because we are not out there inspiring people to get out to vote, then shame on us. We need to organize, and we better win in 2012."

(Curtis Tate contributed to this report.)


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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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