Does President Obama have contempt for liberals? No. The administration is virtually infested with liberals. And they're not inclined to be self-hating.
But the Obama Way harbors contempt for ideologically driven special interest constituency politics. During the campaign, it eschewed endorsements, refused to attend interest group cattle calls, and alienated the DC-lobby-politics community. The activist left was never really on board with the Obama movement until the very end of the primary. And the White House makes a distinction between self-identified liberals -- who, polls tell us, still love the president -- and the activists who cue those liberals, many of whom are calling into question the entire Obama project.
There are many ways to view this dispute. It is, in some ways, a continuation of the age-old see-saw between idealism and pragmatism; it is a reaction formed to polling showing that Democrats are in trouble next November; it is a dispute between the art of the possible and the dreams of the perfect; between those who believe that to uptend the current health system would force enormous unrest and those who believe that sustaining it would be even worse. It is a debate between those who are deeply skeptical of the motivations of the private sector, and those who believe that progressive ends can only be accomplished by joining forces with it.
Howard Dean has become the talisman for a bundle of anxieties (the bank bailouts, Afghanistan surging, card check, state secrets, gay rights, civil liberties) -- this was HIS party before it was Obama's, remember -- but now, figures like Andy Stern, the White House's most powerful labor ally, are voicing doubts about Obama's willingness to fight for progressive causes.
The White House is clearly worried -- not so much about final passage of health care, but about how Democrats perceive the health care victory. It would be a disaster for them if Democrats, taking their cues from the liberal activists
in Washington, don't come around to the view that health care is a major accomplishment. It is clear that this ventilation process has already cost the health care plan support among rank-and-file Democrats.
The White House and Congress need a win, for the sake of winning something, but also to demonstrate to voters that Democrats can govern. The policy consequences of the Senate health care bill will determine whether people support it, but the politics of the moment will influence how people perceive the policy outcomes. (As Bill Clinton, in a very rare public statement, put it, "Allowing this effort to fall short now would be a colossal blunder...") It is especially important to achieve a win, the White House believes, at a time when Americans are growing even more skeptical of big institutions (and government) to do anything. And it should be a satisfying win in the face of such opposition. The country is moving right, policy-wise. Obama's folks contend that it's because government needs to do a better job. Liberal activists locate this trend in Obama's having failed to lead the progressive majority he built.
The two arguments are these: the White House contends that the bill is a foundation -- and will meaningfully improve the lives of 30 million people without insurance -- and represents the greatest advance for American health care since LBJ and Medicare. The activist left, broadly, has come to the view that the Senate (and the White House) are held hostage by the forces to whom we've outsourced our health care: the insurance industry, who've just received a massive subsidy in exchange for minimal sacrifices.
The truth, of course, is that both of these arguments are valid. Which one you accept is a matter of taste, preference, mental furniture, ideological commitment, geography.
Beyond this, though, it's a matter of respect: liberals aren't feeling the love. They feel taken for granted. They feel as if the president hasn't done enough to bring them into his coalition. They projected a lot onto candidate Obama, and -- for a variety of reasons, some valid -- don't see the same guy. It is as if Obama's approach to governing assumes that the only influential audiences are the ones he has to court. The White House is looking for ways to palliate the anxiety.
The White House interprets the discontent by saying that liberals REALLY don't like Congress, and the Senate, with its hard-to-govern rules...and that they're associating Obama with Congress because of the health care debate...and that once the economy begins to improve...liberals will retrospectively judge this first year of his presidency with more appreciation.
Still, while liberals might still remain fans of Obama, they're much less enthusiastic than they were. The transmogrified arm of the Obama campaign, Organizing for America, tried to make up in volume what it lacked in message; when the president and the Senate bend over backwards to cooperate with industry and the Republicans, it's going to be hard to convince the Obama base -- which is more moderate and independent than the Democratic base -- to do much of anything. These activist liberals may be angry, but their anger hasn't gotten them squat just yet. A million-dollar MoveOn ad buy has accomplished...? Obama co-opted the organizing vehicles for Democrats, and liberal activists don't have much of an independent infrastructure to make their protests count. Yet.
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