WASHINGTON — White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs clearly touched a nerve when he told a Capitol Hill newspaper that many in the “professional left” aren’t giving the White House enough credit for enacting its agenda and won’t be satisfied until “we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.”
Yes, there was a dustup about saying they ought to be drug tested, and ensuing furor over whether Gibbs should resign, but that’s been gone into in great detail already.
The whole incident has laid bare frustrations the White House has over not getting the credit it feels it deserves for major legislative victories — everything from the health care reform law, to Wall Street reform, to smaller but significant wins like the Lily Ledbetter wage equality bill that was the first President Obama signed.
Yet they also signaled that the White House is keenly aware of frustrations amongst its base that it hasn’t gone far enough or fast enough — and that many key components of the change the left had hoped to see may be left unfinished at the end of Obama’s first two years in office.
Hope and change, or hoping for change?
President Obama admitted much of that in a webcasted speech to progressive activists at Netroots Nation:
“Change hasn’t come fast enough for too many Americans, I know that,” Obama said. “It hasn’t come fast enough for me either and I know it hasn’t come fast enough for many of you who fought so hard during the election.”
“The fact is, it took years to get here — it’ll take time to get us out. We’ve known that since the beginning of our campaign. But I hope you’ll take a moment to consider all we’ve accomplished so far.”
Bill Harper, chief of staff to Rep. Betty McCollum, makes a similar case. Harper said many of Obama’s accomplishments have been reversals of the last administration’s policies, and dealing with the fallout from said policies.
“In a sense, this president hasn’t been able to work on his own agenda yet because he’s been cleaning up the messes from the previous administration,” Harper said.
Yet many of the left’s signature legislative issues will likely be left on the table at the end of this session. A carbon cap-and-trade bill cleared the House last year but is basically dead in the Senate. The votes don’t seem to be there for anything significant on immigration.
And progressives, aware that Democrats are likely to lose seats in both the Senate and the House (with the loss of their outright majority in the House a distinct possibility), want action now, while they still have 59 votes in the Senate and a majority in the House.
Trouble is, the House has been able to pass things like climate change that the Senate has not — and almost every major bill passed into law has had to be watered down before it could clear the Senate.
“The left’s frustration with temporizing by the president has received the coverage, but it is hard to believe that the left is not even more frustrated with the Senate,” said Steven Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis who commutes from the Twin Cities.
“It is the Senate that creates the impression that the Democrats can’t govern,” Smith explained. “The Senate, not the White House, has gutted or delayed action on the public option, climate change legislation, immigration reform, campaign finance, and more stimulus.”
Loyalty, loyal dissent, and loyally pushing for more
Rep. Keith Ellison, responding to Gibbs’ statement, wondered to the Huffington Post why Gibbs would “want to go out and deliberately insult the president’s base” and why he would “confuse legitimate critique with some lack of loyalty.”
Because progressives say it’s not an issue of loyalty. They still like Obama, and given it to do again they’d still vote for the guy. They just think he could be doing much better.
“Overall, I’m still very happy that Obama is President,” said Eric Pusey, co-owner of MN Progressive Project, one of Minnesota’s foremost left-of-center political blogs.
“I’m glad we’ve passed health-care reform even though I support a single payer solution — anything is better than nothing,” Pusey said as an example. “I’m glad he’s listening to the non-deficit hawk economists and doing some stimulus spending. I wish he would do more.”
But Pusey’s frustrations are there too — that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell still remains the military’s official policy on gays and lesbians and that Guantanamo Bay’s detention center remains open. The president’s continuation of much of the Bush doctrines on secrecy, habeas corpus and whistleblowers, he said are “astounding” and “unconscionable.”
Pusey said his goal as a progressive is to “force [Obama] to do all the things he promised and all the things he ought to be doing. “
“He needs to be pushed.”
Smith said progressives don’t just want a change in action from this White House, they want a change in tone. Don’t go after the left, go after the right.
“The left would like President Obama to go to battle with the Republicans more directly and more frequently,” Smith explained. “[Obama] could do more. I bet he will. But the president seems to be a conciliator by nature. He knows that the middle of the spectrum wins elections.”
Ellison, in a statement issued hours after his original comments hit the web, attempted to move the conversation forward.
“Labels matter less than the fact that progressives actually delivered support and votes for the economic recovery package, health care reform, and Wall Street reform. These accomplishments helped deliver on the Democrats’ promise to bring desperately needed change to working families across the nation.”
“Let’s pull together and continue to move past the failed policies of the Bush era. That’s what we are here to do.”
And DNC Chairman Tim Kaine summed it up this morning on MSNBC, noting the passage of major bills like healthcare and Wall Street reform but acknowledging that there’s still far more to do.
“You know, here’s who we are as Democrats — we’re impatient.”