WH 2012: The professional left better learn to live with disappointment

White House officials do not expect liberal commentators who view President Obama as the compromiser-in-chief to lessen their criticism of the administration in the coming two years.

In fact, they expect it to get worse.

That’s because Obama has shown every indication that he is reading from former President Clinton’s playbook and moving toward the right in the name of bipartisan compromise. And nobody at the White House is pushing back on that description.

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In the days following the Democrats’ November shellacking, Obama has given every indication that he is serious about joining Republicans in their at-least-rhetorical push to cut spending.

That continued Tuesday as Obama, after meeting with Democratic and GOP leaders at the White House, said that he is looking for “common ground” with Republicans.

Obama made it clear: He favors results to ideological purity, and he expects the same from Republicans.

“[Americans] did not vote for unyielding partisanship,” Obama said. “They’re demanding cooperation.”

The president even told the GOP that he didn’t do a good enough job of reaching out to it over the past two years. The Republicans did not reciprocate. 

So is the president “bending” while Republicans show no signs of moving in Obama’s direction?

“I’m not sure I call that bending,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. “I call that trying to work together.”

While that sounds like the basis for Triangulation 101 and a feel-good Washington story of sacrifice for the common good, all liberals hear is more of Obama giving while Republicans take. 

And labor unions, the most fundamental and well-organized constituency within the left, were nothing short of furious at Obama’s call for a two-year pay freeze for federal workers this week.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Obama’s move risks “reinforcing the myth, pushed by some for politically convenient but cynical reasons, that America suffers from a federal government comprised of unproductive and overpaid civil servants.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Trumka said.

If the White House is worried about further angering its base, aides certainly aren’t showing it.

White House officials do not take seriously any talk, no matter how preliminary, of a credible primary challenge to the president, and the larger view is that the more Obama is seen as a centrist, the better off he’ll be. 

Liberals, they think, can shut up and get on board to help Obama paint the portrait of moderation the White House is hoping to have framed before November 2012.

After Tuesday’s meeting at the White House, it was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who used Clinton as a model, noting the bipartisan efforts of that era in words that undoubtedly caused nausea within the ranks of the professional left.

“I think of the second Clinton administration, with welfare reform, with balanced budgets, with trade agreements,” McConnell said. “I think we all agree there’s no particular reason why we can’t find areas of agreement and do some important things for the American people over the next two years.”

While it turned out well for Clinton, liberals say Obama is missing the point.

Democrats didn’t lose because moderates broke for Republicans, lefties say. Democrats lost because liberal independents, the same ones who were chanting, “Yes we can!” in 2008, stayed home in 2010.

The kind of energy that swept Obama into the White House will not be replicated during the president’s reelection campaign if liberals feel abandoned by Obama, says the professional left.

In other words, the enthusiasm gap that Obama repeatedly dismissed in 2010 could cause him serious heartburn in 2012 even if he doesn’t have to fight another Democrat for the nomination.

Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, warned of just that on Tuesday, saying that the midterms should be a “wake-up call” for Obama.

“President Obama shouldn’t be worried about criticism from ‘the professional left,’ ” Taylor said. “He should be worried about criticism from millions of former Obama voters who are severely disappointed in him right now. The fact is that many former Obama voters stayed home in 2010, and unless he starts enacting the popular progressive change he campaigned on, they may stay home again in 2012.”

If members of the left are holding out hope that Obama will come around to their reading of the midterms, they had better learn to live with disappointment. And Obama had better hope disappointment doesn’t lead to disengagement.

Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill. Find his column, Obama’s Bid for Reelection, on thehill.com.