By Amie Parnes - 01/16/13 10:00 AM EST
President Obama has angered his base on a wide range of issues over the last month, even as he rides a political high after his victory over congressional Republicans in the fiscal-cliff fight.
The nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to head the Pentagon disappointed liberals and women’s groups hoping for the first female Defense secretary.
It was also a double blow, of sorts, as Obama picked a fight with Republicans over Hagel after avoiding a row over the possible nomination to secretary of State of Susan Rice, an African-American woman who is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Gay-rights groups also felt they were poked in the eye with the Hagel nomination because of the senator’s late-1990s opposition to a gay ambassadorial nominee.
Both fights come as Obama faces criticism from the left for having a second-term Cabinet dominated by white men — another disappointment for a left hoping the Cabinet would be more representative of the voters who elected Obama.
Obama’s recent actions haven’t just offended those outside his administration. There’s also some resentment brewing on the inside.
“I work in this administration, and I have to admit that I’m slightly annoyed by the lack of women around him in those key meetings,” said one administration official. “I mean, c’mon, out of all those people, there’s one woman in the room?”
The official said the problem extended beyond the circle of his closest advisers and into the Cabinet.
“You mean to tell me there’s not one woman who [was] qualified enough to be secretary of State, secretary of Defense or even White House chief of staff?” the official added.
In a New York Times column on Sunday titled “Democrats Behaving Badly,” writer Frank Bruni wrote that Obama and Democrats should be playing “error-free ball” since they have the upper hand going into the second term and because Republicans need a “pretty thorough image overhaul.”
Instead, Obama has been offending the base, which helped catapult him to a second term.
The fights with the left don’t appear to be harming Obama for now — the president enjoyed record-high approval ratings in a Gallup poll taken last month.
To an extent, the disagreements with the left also highlight Obama’s propensity to pick fights with partisans on both sides of the aisle.
But politics can change quickly, particularly for an incumbent enjoying a second-term honeymoon and hoping to preserve political relevance for as long as possible.
“While Obama has most of the cards,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor of communications who specializes in political communications and advertising, “he needs to be careful because the public these days is so fickle that his victory can evaporate fast.”
Some of Obama’s strongest supporters agree. They say the president and his team need to pay better attention not just to the larger problems, but to the smaller details and the message he’s trying to send.
“The pastor flap was mystifying, a completely avoidable screw-up that one only imagines was the result of bad staff work,” said a senior staffer at a national LGBT organization based in Washington.
“Democrats are officially fully on board with our agenda now, so the people they highlight at events like this should reflect that reality,” the staffer said. “It’s extremely easy to find clergy who are overwhelmingly supportive of LGBT equality, and who are also deserving of an honor like this.”
Hagel’s nomination is more understandable to some critics, though MSNBC host Rachel Maddow has offered scalding criticism, ripping the former senator for voting against measures that let women in the military pay for abortion services.
“You at least get the sense there’s a deep personal connection between him and the president,” the staffer said.
While the lack of women in Obama’s inner circle has angered some, one Democratic strategist who deals specifically with women’s issues said there hasn’t been that much “hand-wringing” from women on the topic.
“The president is also really good on women’s issues,” the strategist said. “People are well-aware of his record.”
The strategist pointed out that Obama did want to nominate Rice to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Still, the strategist added, “I hope we’ll see more diversity in his Cabinets to come, but his selection process isn’t over.”
In a news conference on Monday, after enduring criticism on the topic, Obama explained that he had, in fact, surrounded himself with women — in the Cabinet — during his first term, and that women made up 50 percent of his staff. He also appointed two women to the Supreme Court, he noted.
“So I think people should expect that that record will be built upon during the next four years,” he said. “I would just suggest that everybody kind of wait until they’ve seen all my appointments, who’s in the White House staff and who’s in my Cabinet, before they rush to judgment.”