Left upset with ‘machine,’ not Obama

Liberal activists who descended on Washington this week say they’re upset with the political system, but not with President Obama. 

While the three-day Take Back the American Dream conference highlighted grumbles about Obama’s back-peddling on several issues, most of those attending the event see the president as more of a victim of Washington than someone simply ignoring his base. 

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“Washington is a machine, and one person can’t change the entire machine,” said Annabel Park, founder of the Coffee Party. “He [Obama] is part of the machine.”

“It’s not that his values have changed, but there’re limits to what he can do,” Park added. “I don’t think he understood, really, what that machine actually looked like. He thought it was a sailboat but it’s actually a submarine, and he just didn’t know what it was like until he was inside.”

Themes of class division and money in politics seemed to trump all others during the event, which featured appearances by leading figures of the left including Reps. Barney Frank (Mass.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) and Barbara Lee (Calif.). 

And while Park and others acknowledged some disappointments with the president, they also suggested Obama’s more recent statements, which have showed off the president’s pugnacious side, are energizing his base. 

Liberals were incensed with Obama in December when he signed an extension of Bush-era tax cuts for even the wealthiest Americans — a move he opposed but ultimately accepted as part of a larger budget deal with Senate Republicans.

The president also riled liberals in July when he signaled a willingness to cut some entitlement benefits as part of an unsuccessful effort to secure a bipartisan debt-ceiling deal with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Some on the left were worried that the move had stolen a key Democratic talking point: that only Republicans would cut seniors’ benefits.

Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal group that helped organized this week’s conference, said the debt-ceiling episode no longer bothers liberals, citing Obama’s Rose Garden speech last month when the president all but took entitlement benefit cuts off the table.

“In the Rose Garden, frankly, I was worried that he was going to repeat his offer to the Republicans about Social Security and Medicare,” Hickey said. “Instead, he said just the opposite. … That clears the decks for Democrats to run as defenders of those programs.”

Hickey said Obama’s recent assertive streak — including his defense of the entitlements and last weekend’s terse condemnation of those opposed to gays serving openly in the military — have energized liberals who will be vital to the president’s reelection chances next year.

“Now that Obama’s talking about jobs and not just cutting Social Security, I think we have a chance of not only reelecting him but winning the House back,” Hickey said. “The tides are very much turning. The president is now on a message that we’ve been asking him to talk about for a long time: jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Other activists were more openly critical of some of Obama’s policy moves. But they were also quick to note the difficult climate the president has faced since taking office — not only the tough economy, but a Republican Party united in its goal of making Obama a one-term president. Some wondered aloud why the media doesn’t focus more on his accomplishments.

“I’m furious [with Obama] — it’s not that I’m not upset about what’s going on with backsliding and what seems to be an inability to take a strong position on things,” said Rachel Egen, 41, a mother from Washington, D.C. “But there’s also been an incredible amount of progress that he’s done in an incredibly difficult political environment.

“We inherited such a mess and no one seems to be talking about that.”

Michael Mezey, a political scientist at DePaul University, said the liberal grumbling was inevitable, largely because Obama’s sweeping campaign promises raised liberals’ hopes “to an unrealistic level.”

“The Left also thought of him as more progressive than he really was based in part on his early opposition to the war and in part on race,” Mezey said recently in an email. “The assumption was that because he was a black intellectual he must be a strong progressive even though on many issues (health care, for example), Hillary Clinton [Obama’s 2008 presidential opponent] was further to the left than he was.”

Hickey noted that, despite the importance of bringing liberals to the polls next year, it’s working-class Americans — millions of them unemployed and disenchanted with Washington — who will determine who wins the White House. It’s these voters, he said, who should be the real focus of Obama’s reelection strategy.

“More important than the liberal base is the working-class majority that he’s got to put together,” Hickey said. “They don’t see themselves as lefties, they see themselves as disappointed and out of work.”