By Mike Lillis - 10/02/11 09:50 AM EDT
President Obama is learning the hard way that you can't please all of your fans all of the time.
After riding a wave of liberal support into the White House three years ago, Obama has found that some of those same supporters are now among his most vocal critics.
Hardly apologetic, Obama has met the critics head on, telling them to "shake it off" and "stop crying." But the tough-love strategy could backfire, political experts warn, if it alienates the liberal base that will be vital to the president's reelection chances next year.
"The Left’s criticism and/or disenchantment with Obama is real and serious," Michael Mezey, political scientist at DePaul University, said in an email. "Many of his actions (or inactions) have disappointed a large segment of the base and has provoked more than a little grumbling from those quarters. … Obama does need to make amends and he has started to do that, at least rhetorically."
Ross Baker, political scientist at Rutgers University, sounded a similar cautionary note.
"The president's problem with his base is not desertion or defection but demobilization," Baker said in an email. "No serious observer believes that Massachusetts liberals with PhDs would vote for Rick Perry or even Mitt Romney" – the leading GOP presidential contenders – "but they can exercise their right to stay home on election day.
"This is a nightmare grounded in reality," Baker added, "because that is what happened in 2008, especially with younger voters and African Americans."
Every president has trouble with his base, the experts note. In 1992, for instance, many Republicans frustrated with President George H.W. Bush "voted for Ross Perot and got Bill ClintonBill ClintonGennifer Flowers says she will attend debate Trump threatens to bring Gennifer Flowers to debate Michelle Obama, Biden, Bill Clinton to hit post-debate campaign trail MORE," former-Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), a one-time majority whip who served as campaign chairman for Al GoreAl GoreLongtime Clinton aide Reines playing Trump in mock debates: reports Five tips from Trump's fallen rivals on how to debate him Trump picks Clinton's lock on the election MORE’s 2000 presidential run, told The Hill.
But the sheer number of liberal factions – combined with Obama's campaign vows to appease practically all of them – have forced the president to manage a level of supporter discontent that the younger President Bush never had to.
Most Republicans didn't grumble, for instance, when George W. Bush tapped Americans' phones without a warrant. And there was no Tea Party mobilization when Vice President Dick Cheney said "deficits don't matter." Instead, conservatives largely held their tongues and reserved their fire for the Democrats.
"Karl Rove always advised Bush to keep the base happy and the Administration never did anything to alienate the base," Mezey said. "They didn’t compromise on tax cuts, consistently protected guns, never wavered on abortion, and, of course, their response to 9/11 and the Iraq adventure fit their worldview."
Julian Zelizer, political historian at Princeton University, agreed, arguing that Obama is still in search of a singular defining issue he can tap to energize his base.
"What Bush had going then was national security as a unifying rallying point – he had something – and I don't think Obama has that something," Zelizer said. "It's hard to counteract the frustration."
Obama this year has made a number of moves unpopular with the liberals who came out for him in droves in 2008.
Earlier this month, for instance, the president shocked political observers when he asked the Environmental Protection Agency to scrap its plans for stricter rules on smog-forming ozone – standards strongly opposed by Republicans and business leaders, who consider them a job-killer.
The move drew howls from environmentalists, who accused the president of caving on campaign vows to let science – not politics – dictate his policy initiatives.
Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth Action, said Friday that, with moves like that, Obama "runs the risk of depressing the vote" in 2012. Even those who do go to the polls, Pica warned, might be too discouraged to take the extra steps – like donating money or knocking on doors – needed to win national elections.
"He hasn't been willing to really fight on environmental issues," Pica told The Hill. "I'm hearing from a lot of donors that they're really ambivalent right now. They may vote for him, but that may be all he gets out of them."
On labor issues, Obama has ruffled some liberal feathers by endorsing free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. On Monday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka – one of Obama's most influential backers – sent the president a letter opposing the Colombia deal over that country's history of anti-union violence.
Trumka's message was not subtle: Attached were the names of 22 union leaders who have been killed in Colombia's labor wars.
Black lawmakers have also expressed frustration with Obama's handling of the struggling economy. Last month, for instance, CBC leaders wondered aloud why Obama's Midwestern jobs tour skipped over the urban areas hit hardest by the Great Recession. The lawmakers say they support the president fervently, but want to see him fighting harder for the Democrats' policy priorities – particularly when it comes to battling unemployment among African Americans.
“We love the president. We want him to be successful,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said earlier this month. “But does he feel our pain? Does he understand what's going on out here?”
Complicating life for Obama, GOP leaders – particularly those in the Senate – have adopted a strategy of opposing the White House even on some legislation Republicans support. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellTrump slams Obama for ‘shameful’ 9/11 bill veto GOP chairman lobbies against overriding Obama on 9/11 bill Black Caucus demands Flint funding from GOP MORE (R-Ky.), for instance, raised eyebrows at the start of the deficit-reduction debate when he helped kill a bipartisan bill – a proposal he'd previously characterized as the “best way to address the [budget] crisis” – after Obama endorsed it.
"The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," McConnell told National Journal last year.
The GOP's rigidity has forced Obama to the right in order to pass anything through Congress, which in turn has only heightened the backlash from the left.
In July, after Obama had signaled his willingness to compromise with GOP leaders and scale back benefits under Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal activist group, launched a campaign encouraging liberals to withhold financial and volunteer support for the president in 2012 if he stood behind those changes. The group gathered 200,000 signatures, which were delivered to Obama's campaign headquarters in Chicago.
Some liberal lawmakers have even gone so far as to suggest that a Democratic primary challenge would be good for Obama.
“It would make him a better president if he received a Democratic challenge in a Democratic primary," Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), the liberal firebrand, told CNN's Piers Morgan earlier this month.
The statement was welcomed by many American Jews, who have been wary of Obama's position on the issue, particularly after he called in May for Israel's 1967 borders to mark the "foundation" for renewing stalled peace talks between the two sides – a concession to Palestinians that Israel's defenders bluntly rejected.
That's not all. Catering to immigrant-rights advocates, Obama last month announced a halt to the blanket deportation of every illegal immigrant in line for banishment. The move will allow non-criminal illegal immigrants to remain in the country indefinitely.
Some political experts warned, however, that those steps might be too little, too late.
"When you try to make amends in year four, it looks extremely political," said Princeton's Zelizer. "You've angered someone – or frustrated them – for three years, and then year four say, 'I'm really with you,' it doesn't sound genuine."
Coelho, for his part, said the emergence of Obama's liberal critics is not only inevitable, but it's also a healthy part of democracy.
"They're a necessary part of the process," Coelho said. "They have to try to push the incumbent back to where they think he should be.
"The media like to play it as absolute, because that's what gets the headlines," Coelho said. "But it isn't absolute. It's a necessary part of the give-and-take underlying the political process."
Still other observers maintain that, despite their grievances with some of Obama's positions, liberals will come out for him at the polls when faced with the Republican alternative.
"I don't think that Obama has fractured his base," Henry Brady, political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an email.
"The truth is that its members have no place to go other than to him right now."