Robert Gibbs' announcement today that he will be stepping down from the White House podium to take an advisory role offers an opportunity for the White House to repair relationships with the community Gibbs derided as "the professional left" as the president gets ready for a reelection campaign that will need to renew excitement among progressives even as it woos more centrist voters.
Gibbs "will continue to shape the dialogue politically for many years to come," Obama told The New York Times in an interview after Gibbs said he'd be departing in early February.
"We've been on this ride together since I won my Senate primary in 2004," Obama said. "He's had a six-year stretch now where basically he's been going 24/7 with relatively modest pay. I think it's natural for someone like Robert to want to step back for a second to reflect, retool and that, as a consequence, brings about both challenges and opportunities for the White House."
The first opportunity is to bury the hatchet with a community of people that has felt itself repeatedly and needlessly insulted by Gibbs and also by former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
While it is absolutely the case that liberals continue to be Obama's core base of support -- every poll shows them to be his most ardent backers -- the professional left, as it were, can be critical during a campaign cycle, as its members provide ground troops and an online megaphone for favored candidates.
In the leadup to the 2010 elections, tweaking progressives might have been hoped to send a message that the president had some distance from them as his support among more centrist voters and independents began to plummet. It also appeared to express a genuinely felt sentiment of frustration as progressives continued to criticize the president even as he shepherded into law some of the most significant progressive achievements since the 1960s.
But the Republican sweep in the fall -- coupled with the dramatic fall-off in those calling themselves Democrats since 2008, plunging the percent of Americans identifying as Democrats to its lowest level in 22 years -- suggests an approach that again seeks to broadly inspire rather than selectively alienate might again be needed.
Sam Stein reported from the Christian Science Monitor breakfast Wednesday morning with former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who cheered the White House staff changes for this very reason:
"[M]ost of the people who were [causing the friction] are either out of the White House or going," Dean said. "So I guess I would say there is in process a huge senior staff shakeup going on at the White House. I think that is a very good thing and I think that will help."
While Obama may differ with progressives on certain policy issues, Dean said, "The core issue is the contempt, which not just the progressives were treated by but lots of people were treated by, by senior advisers around the president who have been here for 20 years and thought they knew everything and we knew nothing. That is a fundamental flaw in any kind of administration. As they say, 'Don't let the door hit you in the you-know-what on the way out.'"
The former governor, who has often been a pugnacious critic of the president, insisted that his critiques were not directed at departing press secretary Robert Gibbs or former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
"It is more than just Gibbs or Rahm. It was a whole mindset going on," he said.