Obama's power with progressives

by: Chris Bowers

Mon Dec 21, 2009 at 14:14

The progressive pushback against the Senate health care bill has been, and will continue to be, essential in creating any space for the bill to be improved.  Both during the final process putting together the substitute amendment in the Senate, and during the upcoming conference committee, whatever small improvements end up in the final legislation will / would not have been possible without people like Howard Dean, and groups like MoveOn.org.  If no one was making noise from the left about how terrible the Senate bill is, and instead if everyone had been saying how the bill was teh awesome, then there would have been no reason to improve the bill at all.  If anything, the bill would have been weakened even further.

Still, whatever small improvements are made will be crumbs compared to what Lieberman. Ben Nelson, and insurance companies have been able to wring from the process.  Why were they able to win so much more from the process than progressive organizations, activists, and members of Congress?  There are a lot of pet theories floating around, but the only explanation that can be easily backed up by quantitative analysis is that President Obama is the only person with enough sway over enough of the progressive base to have been able to translate progressive dissatisfaction with the bill into transformative action to improved the bill.  However,  he just didn't use that influence to change the bill in ways that meshed with the aims of the progressives who are now calling the bill unsatisfactory.

According to Gallup weekly tracking, over three-fourths of self-identified liberals still approve of President Obama's job performance.  Over the past week, his approval among liberals actually went up 1%, despite the big left-wing revolt.

If there was going to be a national left-wing revolt to defeat the bill, it was either going to have to be led by President Obama himself or by an alliance of progressive organizations with equal sway over the progressive base.   However, no such alliance exists.  No one has the same sway over the progressive base as President Obama, or really anywhere even close.  If there was ever going to be a left-wing revolt that resulted in more than crumbs, then President Obama was going to have to lead it himself.  However, he never did that, or made any indication he ever would.

It isn't so much that President Obama takes self-identified liberals for granted--its more like he has he has convinced the vast majority of self-identified liberals to join him in supporting policies like Liebercare.  If progressive organizations are going to win more than crumbs in future fights, then they need more sway over the progressive grassroots base than even President Obama, (or whoever happens to be leading the Democratic Party at any given time).   That is a monumental organizing task, but it is what left-wing opponents of this bill currently face.  You can't win a political fight when your opponent has more sway among your community than you do.  And, right now, President Obama's sway among the center-left rank and file in America remains unchallenged.

Chris Bowers :: Obama's power with progressives

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I almost wonder if we would be better off with Hillary (4.00 / 2)
Progressives would have been wary of her from the start and would have been fighting tooth and nail on every initiative. With Obama, we were lulled into believing he was on our side until recently. Makes me wonder if we would have been able to muster a stronger effort toward a more adequate stimulus, better health reform, etc.

Hillary admitted her fondness for lobbyists at the Chicago Yearly Kos convention. Obama pretended he would show them the door and push for more progressive legislation. Like so many here, I was dumb enough to believe him and campaign for him in the primaries. At least we will be on our guard from now on!

I've been saying this for almost two years. n/t (4.00 / 1)

[ Parent ]
there's a gulf of difference between the "center left" and actual progressives (4.00 / 3)
as the blowback directed at Jane Hamsher has demonstrated

your theory relies on Barack Obama representing the left, as opposed to say vigorously opposing it (see: http://www.openleft.com/diary/... )

I think there's an important distinction to be drawn between traditional Clinton style "liberals" and real progressives along the lines of Dennis Kucinich and the like

the fault lines aren't ideological (4.00 / 3)
I don't think the separation between people who say 'pass the bill' and the people who say 'kill the bill' is between real progressives and moderates or the center-left. It's just a matter of tactical or strategic calculation, or temperament. But no one who affiliates as liberal thinks the Senate bill is ideal.

[ Parent ]
Perhaps (4.00 / 2)
But many have only the vaguest idea what it does, making whatever they think about it much vaguer and less grounded than the typical person on these boards.  You can't remind yourself often enough that you are not typical, even among educated (formally or otherwise) liberals, let alone the general public.  The gap between informed and uninformed citizens is as big as the left-right gap, and probably much more important.  People who post here are a minority (lefties) within a tiny minority (people who are deeply interested in politics).

[ Parent ]
there's "not ideal" and there "a terrible idea" (0.00 / 0)
it's all a matter of perspective, I suppose

[ Parent ]
The thing is (4.00 / 1)
Actual progressives (well-informed and left-wing) are a tiny fraction of the population.  I don't have hard numbers, not even sure adequate data exists to measure it, but it can't be more than 3%, maybe a lot lower (keep in mind that even .5% is more than 1 million people, that's why you notice others like yourself).  This doesn't necessarily make it hopeless (there aren't many informed hard right-wingers either), but it does mean progressives have to work hard at mobilizing/convincing even the center- and less well informed left, as well as attracting support from swing voters.

We need a real movement.  I have to think more about how we get one :-).

[ Parent ]
Kucinich is a bad example (4.00 / 3)
I would have said progressives along the lines of Bernie Sanders -- someone who holds to his convictions but knows how to build coalitions to get things done.

[ Parent ]
good point, Bernie is better in many ways (0.00 / 0)
on the other hand, he's voting for this awful fucking bill

[ Parent ]
Yeah there's a deep (4.00 / 4)
connection to him among liberals, especially low-information ones. When I step outside the Netroots bubble, where more and more progressives are coming to see the truth about him, I'm continually taken aback by the unquestioning support for him, and this is from whites and blacks alike. My friend in Seattle just told me that the devotion to Obama out there is eerie. You said:

President Obama takes self-identified liberals for granted--its more like he has he has convinced the vast majority of self-identified liberals to join him in supporting policies like Liebercare.

True enough, but of course it has very little to do with policy.

This connection will likely persist regardless of circumstance. It's strange. Because of his political skills and brilliant marketing (as well as his blackness), Obama will remain extremely popular among liberals even as he moves ever rightward. Or maybe not so strange: Clinton pulled it off as well, didn't he? But then Clinton was popular overall. The way things things are going, Obama could end up popular with liberals and no one else.  

So much of it is identity politics (4.00 / 2)
In the 2004 primaries, among the first-tier candidates, John Edwards was taking the most progressive positions but, being a white southern male, he polled best with conservative democrats....

[ Parent ]
2008 (4.00 / 2)
I think you mean in 2008.  In 2004 Edwards did not have particularly progressive positions.

[ Parent ]
Oops. Thanks for the correction. I did mean 2008. (0.00 / 0)
Of course it's pretty clear now that Edwards was just saying what he felt he needed to say to gain traction in the primaries, but he served a useful purpose in pushing Barack and Hillary toward more populist positions. Too bad Obama saw no need to fight for those positions once elected.

[ Parent ]
we didn't have an economic crisis (0.00 / 0)
of this magnitude under Clinton. We didn't have the Internet, either.

As the GOP and the American oligarchy come to understand just how easy it is to roll Obama, they're going to start making ever more outrageous demands of him. The GOP of Gingrich's time merely wanted Clinton to eliminate the Department of Education and they shut down the government to do it (that was one time when Clinton actually resisted and called their bluff). Then they impeached him in retribution.

The teabagger GOP of Sarah Palin is going to demand some truly insane shit from Obama--and they will impeach him the second they retake Congress or even if they only gain seats. And I don't think Obama has it in him to resist even as much as Clinton did. He'll just give them what they want, in a blind panic, and try to smooth over his base with happy talk.

Given how bad things are, Obama's Katrina moment might come soon, and again, I don't think he'll acquit himself terribly well there either.

During the Great Depression, Hoover ended up panicking and calling out the Army to deal with a group of protesting veterans. If civil unrest grows to a sizable degree, and the media/GOP demand extreme measures, who knows what Obama will do? I haven't seen any sign that he'll draw a line anywhere.

[ Parent ]
It's a matter of time, David (0.00 / 0)
and a matter of progressives being more informed about what is actually happening with legislation and policy.

Most people are simply going to choose to listen to the opinions of someone on TV or in the news about whether or not the health care (not) reform bill is a good thing.  It's nearly impossible to follow the details of the thing closely.

But as time goes on and people find out what's really going on with it, there is no way that it will gain popularity.

The Obama administration is playing a "short term gains" game.

The progressive blogosphere has been as good a bellwether for public sentiment as any other measure.  It's a matter of time before broader public sentiment changes.  Look at the Iraq war for an example.

[ Parent ]
Is there some way to join forces? (4.00 / 1)
I just heard something on the news about the next CPAC convention and I wondered if it would be possible to create something like that on the left -- a forum where presidential candidates would beat a path to our door to burnish their progressive creds.  Conservatives and teabaggers are funded by big corporate money, which we don't have.  They also have a simpler message.  So we'd have to find creative solutions to work around that.  I get hundreds of emails each week from progressive organizations.  Isn't there some way we can get a significant number of these groups to work together and coordinate the messaging and the call to action?  I liked the structure Moveon created, even if I don't always think they're making the best use of their resources.

Netroots Nation (0.00 / 0)
is the place to go for this.  

[ Parent ]
There were two end games (4.00 / 2)
1) Passing a "compromise", meaning a bill you wouldn't like.

2) Forcing the GOP to kill a bill you would like.

The decision was made to pass something, which was putting real-world outcomes ahead of political positioning.

Not an inexplicable decision.

Don't Get Your Knickers In A Twist! (0.00 / 0)
Right now debate on health care vividly resembles the debate among liberals and moderate Democrats over the Iraq war. There were "liberal internationalists" who favored the war, although they had various criticisms of Bush's policies, and the harsher critics who decried the war in toto.

But, remember what happened? Within 2 years there WERE NO "pro-war liberals" to be found (and people like Friedman, who posed as an establishment "liberal" was widely mocked and vilified for his endless "Friedman units.")

The same thing will happen with health care reform. Within 2 years there will be universal dissatisfaction with this bill, because it won't do the job. Progressives will ALL be united again about the need for further reform. Obama will have to do something or face a full scale rebellion going into an election year.

He won't be able to hide behind the "we don't have 60 votes so we can't do anything" rationale either -- if he has 51 votes for meaningful reform, he's going to have to ram it through. His lame excuses simply won't wash with the American people.

Then the fight will come. What will be the response? On the right it will be to repeal the entire bill. But THAT won't be popular because the status quo is ever worse for more and more people.

Progressives can and must organize around the premise of fixing what's wrong with the bill and making it stronger.

And that can best be done by expanding medicare and medicaid and offering a medicare/medicaid buy-in and government subsidies.

That would be a difficult fight at any time, and under any circumstances, but it has to be done. And frankly, universal health care as an organizing principle is still the BEST vehicle out there for creating a governing liberal ideology that has power in the U.S.

The right wing has seized this issue as "government overreach" but their screams are going to look very hollow when it's realized how LITTLE this bill actually does.  

I hope you're right (4.00 / 2)
But that was under a Republican president, and a failing war is hard to miss -- failing health care policy is what we already have, and even if the bill makes things worse, it won't be enough, quick enough to be widely noticed, let alone accepted by liberals, given that the "reform" is going to be savaged by the right no matter what it does.  Also, the bill doesn't really do anything until after 2012 anyway.

As David Mizner points out above, Clinton stayed very popular with liberals -- it made me ill, but he did.  We need a strategy that doesn't count on it being different with Obama.  Heck, our strategy has to consider how to make it different with Obama.

[ Parent ]
re: straztegy (4.00 / 1)
We need a strategy that doesn't count on it being different with Obama.

is that possible?

[ Parent ]
yes it is (4.00 / 3)
I forgot my own words...

if we could put 'medicare above 55' language in the house bill and then don't budge an inch, obama would be forced to work for it's passage, and its passage is the same thing we want

because obama wants something to pass, even if that something isn't a corporate sellout. otherwise he wouldn't have asked for reconciliation to be there.

[ Parent ]
Doing Something As Opposed To Nothing Puts It On The Table! (0.00 / 0)
Once they pass something, no matter what -- they have to fix it.

It's not at all like ignoring a problem! If you ignore it, there's just all these people with no health care.

If you try to fix it and it isn't fixed, then  you raised all these expectations and then dashed them!

It's a VASTLY different scenario! The Right-wing attacks alone will make them "own" this legislation -- and THAT won't be pretty.

Democrats aren't going to be able to walk away from this for the next 20 years. Every defect will be a subject of bitter partisan dispute -- just as Social Security was for many years.

It took at least 15 years before Republicans accepted that they weren't going to be able to immediately repeal Social Security -- and as Bush showed, they NEVER really stopped dreaming about getting rid of it.

But, sometime in the 50's they realized it just wasn't paying dividends -- and you stopped seeing serious people talking about it.

It's going to be a LONG fight and while Democrats might WANT to pass this bill and sweep the defects under the rug, they're not going to be able to do it.

[ Parent ]
if this bill is about special interest (4.00 / 1)
and the protection of the insurance companies, then why are all republicans against it and the Dems for it?  not sure whats wrong with this picture.  

This bill should have been "insurance reform" from the start!!  This should have been the focus and everything else would have fallen into place.  This affordable health care for all was just a bunch of crap that no one could sell and no one wants to buy.  when the American public realizes the cost of this to their individual pockets by way of penalties, fees, tax, etc., the real health care revolution will begin.  I predict the 2010 elections are going to be very dissapointing for alot of people.  

[ Parent ]
come on (4.00 / 1)
if this bill is about special interest
and the protection of the insurance companies, then why are all republicans against it and the Dems for it?

look at the insurance companies when asking this question. the republicans are opposed to it for political reasons

dem politicians? they are afraid to go against the white house

[ Parent ]
Why (0.00 / 0)
House Democratic candidates ran about 1% point better than Obama.  Those who were elected did better than that.  Are they really scared of Obama or do they want to cash in on those $3 million a year jobs as lobbyists or "government relations" experts when they retire or are beaten?

[ Parent ]
Because (4.00 / 5)
their goal is to destroy Obama, not to support legislation.  

[ Parent ]
That's an interesting idea (0.00 / 0)
This bill should have been "insurance reform" from the start!!  This should have been the focus and everything else would have fallen into place.  This affordable health care for all was just a bunch of crap that no one could sell and no one wants to buy.

The part about calling it "insurance reform."

They could still do that. Drop the mandate requirement and keep the good stuff.

The good part about calling it "affordable health care for all," which I do not agree was all crap, is that the country engaged in the debate.

Someone else pointed this out here in a comment somewhere, that this is one good thing about this debate: The American public knows a lot more than it did before about health care reform.  

[ Parent ]
'don't want to kill health-care reform' meme (0.00 / 0)
one of the most stunning things was that everyone in congress knew reconciliation was there, so a no vote wouldn't mean the death of health-care reform, but forcing obama to go to the R route, but they didn't pursue it. maybe someone in the house will do it.

so when they come to us and say 'I went along because I didn't want to kill health-care reform' we know that's a bunch of crap.

same, to a lesser extent, with the climate change bill. if someone says 'I had to go along' we know that's a bunch of nonsense. a no vote doesn't kill environmental regulation. the EPA can do it.

EPA (4.00 / 1)
One advantage we have in the upcoming climate change legislation is the status quo is much better due to the EPA's ability to regulate carbon.  This gives us much more leverage to actually vote no if the bill doesn't do what we want.

[ Parent ]
Chris, you personally refute your thesis (4.00 / 3)
Chris, you were one of the earliest and loudest supporters of the compromised Senate bill, however support for Obama or suasion from Obama had absolutely nothing to do with your position. Instead, you identified the deciding issue for most progressive supporters: morality. Simply put, no matter how bad the politics nor how bad the compromises, a bill that would bring health care to millions and save tens of thousands of lives could not be opposed.

Even if you posit that the morality argument was Obama's central pitch to progressives, it doesn't necessarily follow (and IMO doesn't) that agreeing with the argument indicates support for or being 'controlled' by Obama.

Self-refuting Christine O'Donnell is proof monkeys are still evolving into humans

Credible Threat (4.00 / 2)
Why were they able to win so much more from the process than progressive organizations, activists, and members of Congress?

I still find it shocking that people find this shocking.  Someone who has no problem with the status quo and really, honestly doesn't care much if a bill passes or not always has his or her vote as the ultimate compromise.  Someone who is disparately working to change the system simply cannot use his or her vote as a threat.  "I want to change the system so much I'm willing to vote no to stop that change" just doesn't work that well.

It can work in limited situations, of course, but the cards have to land just right.  In general, those fighting for change simply do not have a credible threat to stop that change when it isn't good enough.

When thinking through long term strategy, I think it is best to take this reality into account.  Those that don't mind the status quo will always have this advantage over us.  We need to find strategies and tactics that work with our strengths instead of wishing we had theirs.

Personally, I think our greatest advantage is the ratchet effect.  It is much easier to defend our gains then it is to get them originally.  Once people have benefit they are very hesitant to give them up.  In the case of health care, I think we should pass the best bill we can (but definitely pass it) and then get right back to work on legislation to improve it.  

In this case, the components we most want added back in can be passed via reconciliation.  After this bill passes, we should work to get those end.  (Note I'm not saying this is guaranteed to happen, or even likely.  Just this is what we should work towards.)

Never think any legislation is the end.

apples and weeds (0.00 / 0)
According to Gallup weekly tracking, over three-fourths of self-identified liberals still approve of President Obama's job performance.

Poll these same "liberals" and ask them where literally dozens of high ranking administration officials fit into organizations like Bilderberg, the Council On Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. Ask them where organizations like this fit into the agendas of Wall Street and the military industrial complex.

Than discuss the gap between them [and their vaunted, cherished "idealism" and progressives who are in fact aware of how Wasshington really works.

It's not apples and oranges here, it's apples and weeds.

Exactly (4.00 / 1)
You can't win a political fight when your opponent has more sway among your community than you do.


This is going to be an ongoing problem and I think it makes sense to hate Obama less and figure out how to manipulate, use and triangulate him...not kidding. He needs to be shamed into action. He responds to shame. He doesn't respond to attacks.

Also think a better spokesperson is in order. Dean is nice guy and all, and good weather vane, but lousy spokesperson who is not taken seriously by anyone. (Even Ed Schultz would be better.) This is something to work on.

Dylan Ratigan? (0.00 / 0)
he's got the clean cut white guy look that makes people like Chris Matthews pay attention, and lately his show has been like it was ghostwritten by Matt Taibbi (without the swears)

[ Parent ]
Sorry but I just don't believe it - (0.00 / 0)
Chris said:
According to Gallup weekly tracking, over three-fourths of self-identified liberals still approve of President Obama's job performance.  Over the past week, his approval among liberals actually went up 1%, despite the big left-wing revolt.

Sorry, but I just don't believe it -

I don't know what Gallup is measuring but it ain't the activist base - the folks who go out and knock on the doors, make the phone calls & etc - they are pissed beyond belief.

I dunno, twitter is rife with self-declared uber liberals... (0.00 / 0)
constantly pelting Jane Hamsher with tomatoes for not falling in line with Dear Leader

[ Parent ]
How many self-identified liberals are there? (0.00 / 0)
What was the percentage of people in that poll of people who were self-identified liberals?

There are a lot of Democrats who won't self-identify as liberals (but may still be progressives e.g. I think Markos falls into this category).

There are a number of people who have become independents as a result of the wholesale sellout of Pres Obama and the majority of the Democratic party.

There are plenty of people who would say they have populist leanings but would not identify as a liberal.

I don't see how you can draw your conclusions by simply using an approval ratings of one small segment of the population.  If I remember correctly, national polls for a public option showed that 25% of the people who supported it were Republicans and a larger percentage were Independents.

And zooming out further on this whole thing, I think it's going to become increasingly difficult to draw conclusions from these polls in general because the Democratic party has an increasingly severe identification problem.  I don't think I'm the only person who, while identifying as liberal, progressive and populist, who has been a member of the Democratic party for 31 years, has become an Independent.

I appreciate your perspectives on this, Chris... (0.00 / 0)
I really hadn't thought about it in this light at all, but think you are absolutely right about it. I have contact with numerous people who I can safely say are hard-core long-time Democratic Party voters - who are  just appalled if I (or anyone) complains one iota about Obama. Its a no-go area. And thus I have stopped going there - or at least, am very cautious about how I do it and who I do go with, because I want to maintain my credibility. A tricky area...


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