President Obama’s liberal critics are furious, vocal and useful to a White House trying to solve the riddle of reelection: How does a sitting president run against Washington?
White House officials who last year viewed the “professional left” as an annoying bunch of ungrateful idealists living in a fantasy world now see Washington’s angry liberal class as a key but unwilling or unknowing ally in the 2012 race.
Obama 2012 will still be about change. It will just be a different kind of change.
Instead of promising to bring both sides together, Obama is trying to showcase his ability to rise above them all.
Their answer is to spend the next two years running against everyone inside the Beltway, and that means both Democrats and Republicans.
The president’s tone when he announced the tax-cut deal was a public scolding of both parties, and the professional left got another lashing at Tuesday’s press conference.
Recalling the debate over the public health insurance option, Obama blasted them for choosing ideological purity over progressive results.
“People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people,” Obama said angrily. “And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious ... and how tough we are, and in the meantime the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of preexisting condition, or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.
“That can’t be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat.”
Got that, kids? No symbolic fights — the bread and butter of the professional left.
And it’s not just the professional left that is angry. Every Democrat in Washington who doesn’t work at the White House is mad. When, they ask, is Obama going to start fighting?
Well, the truth is Obama has started fighting. He’s just fighting everyone, including the left.
Want to make the angry left apoplectic? Try agreeing to a trade deal with Korea, freezing federal workers pay in a pretend attempt to rein in the deficit and extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich.
And that was just in the last week.
The policy and political moves suggest Obama isn’t worried about being deserted by his base.
Republican tactics and goals are predictable for the next two years, and the tax deal the president struck with them is only a harbinger of things to come.
As a result, the White House foresees a two-year period of outrage from both flanks that it thinks Obama can rise above, appearing pragmatic and willing to anger his own base in an effort to get the economy moving.
With all the children in the Washington circus screaming, Obama will look like the grown-up, officials believe.
In many ways, the next two years will feel like a dull and prolonged version of Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment. The term was coined after Clinton publicly criticized the hip-hop author and activist over her comments about race.
“The New York Times editorial page does not permeate all across American,” Obama said.
And instead of a single repudiation, Obama will make half a term of the practice.
Another advantage to taking on the left is that it’s a good warm-up for the absurdity that is sure to flow from the GOP primary season.
In the primary season, GOP candidates will be trying to out-right each other. This White House hopes it will be an endless stream of gaffes, infighting and reality TV-style shenanigans.
If the president wins points for giving the hand to his base, he will be well-positioned to look presidential and sensible while the Sarah Palins and Newt Gingriches are in New Hampshire railing against anti-colonialism.
And then the professional left will be useful to Obama again.
They will have other targets for their outrage. They will take to the airwaves to defend the president.
And, the White House hopes and expects, they will hold their noses and vote for Obama.
Youngman is the White House correspondent for The Hill. Find his column, Obama’s Bid for Reelection, on thehill.com.