LAS VEGAS — The netroots, the liberal Democrats who've been instrumental in making the Internet an important political tool, are disappointed in President Barack Obama.
While the left is hardly abandoning a man they helped elect, the 2,000 Democratic bloggers, activists and organizers who wrapped up four days of Netroots Nation meetings at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino Sunday are sending him a message: It could be harder to generate the kind of passion in this November’s congressional elections that was so crucial to his 2008 victory.
"A lot of people woke up every day in 2008 and asked, 'What can I do to get Obama elected?' " said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "We want him to succeed, but unfortunately what we've seen so far is an unwillingness to truly fight the powerful interests."
2008 was a milestone for the netroots, their biggest victory since they began emerging as a political force roughly a decade ago.
In 2009, however, reality bit.
"The process of how do you deal with power has been a learning process, and a lot of people have struggled with it," said veteran liberal activist Robert Borosage.
Obama understands the political stakes and the frustration, and on Saturday he made an unscheduled four-minute video appearance to try to soothe the crowd.
"It's important the president is speaking with us and staying connected to our movement, and I like how he's promoting the successes," said Charles Chamberlain, Democracy for American political director. "But too often it feels like he's capitulating rather than winning."
With congressional elections about three months away, the netroots' immediate problem is that criticizing Obama publicly could give more ammunition to a fired-up Republican Party. "It's a nuanced time," said Richard Eskow, a Los Angeles-based senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal activist group.
Perhaps that's why much of the talk in the dozens of seminars on the convention schedule were less about how to push favored congressional candidates this November and more about building lasting coalitions. While some November candidates appeared, no stars emerged and no buzz developed over anyone.
Instead, the conversation often turned to how network building starts back home, not in Washington, with an eye not necessarily toward November, but the Novembers of the future.
That's why one seminar was devoted to "moving a national progressive message through state policy." Others had people discussing "building bridges with people of faith to win progressive change."
Two issues that have stirred liberal passions for years, Social Security and financial regulation, illustrate the problems and the promise the netroots face in their new political world.
They shudder at the prospect of Social Security's political fate. A bipartisan deficit commission is examining ways to reduce the national debt, and some leaders of both parties recently have suggested raising the Social Security retirement age to 70 as one way to start.
Increasing the age, now 66 for those born from 1943 to 1954 and rising gradually to 67 for those born in 1960 and later, wouldn't save much money, but some politicians consider it an important symbolic way to show the political and financial worlds that Washington means business.
Such talk scares the liberals. There's no immediate Social Security funding crisis, they point out: Experts say that under current rules, the system won't be able to pay scheduled benefits starting in 2039, which is a political lifetime away these days.
"Elections are always a good time to bring this up. Candidates have to be out and meeting people," said Heather "Digby" Parton, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based blogger.
However, Eric Kingson, a co-director of Social Security Works, an activist group, wants the debate to go in another direction, too.
"We should be talking about a vision of Social Security," he said, one that extends beyond its current mission. "We don't talk enough about values. We now talk about financing as the end, but financial Social Security should be seen as a means to an end."
The debate over financial regulation has a different hue. Obama last week signed into law the most far-reaching overhaul of the system since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The new law creates a new consumer agency to write rules for credit products such as mortgages, student loans and credit cards; requires federally insured financial institutions to spin off riskier investments and makes it easier for the government to break up large institutions that have financial problems.
The netroots want more.
"The legislation does not address the tsunami of the crisis that has affected everyday people," said Gerald Taylor, a Mt. Holly, N.C.-based official at the Industrial Areas Foundation, a citizen organizing network. "It does not address the pain and anger."
Too little is being done to stem the tide of foreclosures, argued Mary Bottari, the Wisconsin-based director of the Center for Media and Democracy Real Economy Project "It's a national disgrace," she said, "and we're doing nothing, nothing, nothing."
They expected more from the Obama administration. A health care overhaul passed, but without the government-run option many netroots championed. The economic stimulus is now nearly 18 months old, but many in this crowd want more of a government jolt to the economy. They don't expect to see any of this for a while, and they're tugged in different directions about how to react and proceed.
The netroots do agree on this much: "We raised expectations," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., "and haven't met them."
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