As president throws bones to political base, liberal anger on the wane

President Obama has appeased elements of his liberal base in recent months by repealing the Pentagon’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, reversing course on the Defense of Marriage Act and pursuing new gun-control measures.

Since enduring a near-mutiny among his political base during the debate on the extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts late last year, the outrage from the left expressed in the last Congress has noticeably subsided. And it’s no accident. 

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Obama advisers have stepped up their outreach to liberal activists, and the so-called “professional left” that then-White House press secretary Robert Gibbs derided last year has been focusing more on potential GOP White House hopefuls. 

In 2010, there was a lot of chatter in Washington about Obama being challenged from the left in the Democratic presidential primary. But that, too, has dissipated as potential candidates, including ex-Sen. Russ Feingold (Wis.) and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, have ruled out such a bid. 

The change in the political winds has been surprising, especially in the wake of historic GOP gains in the midterm elections. Many political pundits predicted that the rift between the left and Obama would intensify as he and his administration moved right, talking about reducing the deficit, extending the Afghanistan war and pursuing trade deals. 

But the exact opposite has happened, and Obama’s approval ratings — as well as his chances for winning reelection — have improved.

By and large, liberal criticism of Obama has been notably missing in recent weeks, something Democrats on Capitol Hill acknowledge. 

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said he and his colleagues are searching for balance.

“Some are outraged,” said Moran, one of the staunchest opponents among House Democrats of continuing the Afghan war. “But we don’t want to undermine our president. We know he wants to get out [of Afghanistan] himself, but he doesn’t know how to do it.”

As Judiciary Committee chairman in the last Congress, Rep. John Conyers Jr. criticized Obama at times. The frustrated president subsequently called Conyers to find out why the Michigan Democrat was “demeaning” him. 

During a speech on Monday, Conyers embraced a more conciliatory tone, saying he supports Obama though explaining that he wants to make him “a better president.”

Liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is again pushing a resolution that would remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan, hoping to reignite vocal Democratic opposition to the war. A similar effort failed last year when the House was controlled by Democrats, but Kucinich thinks the new effort will at least garner more support from members of his party now, given growing public discontent over the war.

“You know how things reach a boiling point over here? You light a fire under them,” said Kucinich, who ran for president in 2004 and 2008. 

Kucinich said he still thinks Obama would benefit from a Democratic primary challenge in 2012, though he’s less confident anyone will actually step up to the plate and challenge him.

“I think it’s important that he have to explain his policies in the Democratic forum that a presidential campaign permits,” he added.  Kucinich has said he is not interested in mounting a bid next year. 

While the president and his reelection team have smoothed over some differences with the left, they have benefited from the beginning of the battle for the Republican presidential nomination.

 When Democrats controlled the White House and Congress over the last two years, prominent liberals such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart regularly fired salvos at Obama. Now they fill more airtime by attacking Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other high-profile GOP officials.

Obama’s decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court and to go all out to rescind “Don’t ask, don’t tell” played well among his base.

Meanwhile, gun-control advocates have something to cheer about after Obama this week committed to new proposals to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals. 

 Still, several leading liberal lawmakers say that won’t be enough to motivate the party’s base in 2012.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus in the House, said the hush among liberals has lasted “for several months,” but predicted the volume from leaders on the left is about to be turned way up.

“There’s been an effort of appeasement [on the part of the White House],” he said. “A less-than-half-a-loaf strategy. And I don’t think that’s been satisfying.”

“It’s a little unclear to me what the strategy of the White House is,” said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who was one of the leading Democratic critics of the tax-cut deal late last year. “Everything is obviously aimed at the election in 2012, and every once in a while I have some questions about that.

“One of the things I think is problematic is turnout,” he said. “We got clobbered in 2010, and look who turned out. There’s a message somewhere in there.”

White House officials declined to comment for this story, saying that Obama is focused on governing, and not on the 2012 election. Yet, on Monday night, Obama met with donors during a gathering at the St. Regis Hotel in downtown Washington.

One senior Democrat said that any suggestion Obama is focused on his reelection is absurd.

The official said Obama has “got plenty of other people at the Democratic National Committee and in Chicago to think about reelect, and the luxury of Republican 2012ers moving oppo on one another.”  

“So he doesn’t need to engage right now,” the official said.


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