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07.25.10

Obama's Depressed Liberal Base

The annual Netroots Network summit of progressives should be an occasion for celebrating Obama’s achievements. Matthew Yglesias on why the left is slumping—and how to lift its spirits.

It’s always difficult to characterize the emotional state of a convention full of people. But if the 2007 edition of Netroots Nation was mostly angry, 2008 was hopeful, 2009 was anxious, and now in 2010 the dominant mood is depressed. Perhaps the defining moment of the conference came near the very end when Harry Reid spoke Saturday afternoon. An exhausted-sounded Senate majority leader spoke eloquently about the injustice faced by gay soldiers and the need to end the policy of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”—only to end lamely with the promise that “we're going to continue to work on this to the best we can.” In years past, progressives would be promised results. This summer, the best anyone can offer is continued effort.

Something the administration barely seems to recognize is that political activists do not live on policy accomplishments alone.

Nobody knows exactly what the midterm elections will hold, but it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know it’ll involve Republicans gaining seats. That means that the comprehensive climate bill that died this week won’t be coming back. It means that the outlook for immigration reform will only get bleaker. The outlook for bills on gay rights will only get bleaker. The outlook for labor-law reform will only get bleaker.

In the course of things, this results in a considerable degree of ill will toward Barack Obama and his administration. Activists primarily focused on health care or financial regulation, of course, have made considerable progress. But the rest are looking at a scenario where all their work may come to naught.

To the extent that this takes the form of anger, much of it is misplaced. The sense that if Obama had somehow only pounded the table harder on one issue or another the whole situation would be transformed is simply mistaken.

The administration can be fairly faulted for not taking on the issue of Senate procedural reform in a timely manner. Some of us were warning as early as late 2008 (or even the spring of 2005) that the filibuster was a major danger to the progressive agenda. But Obama was hardly alone in failing to prioritize the matter; most of today’s frustrated activists weren’t talking about this at the time either.

On the other side of the ledger, the Obama administration points to an impressive array of accomplishment. Their health-care bill is the most significant progressive achievement in more than 40 years. Financial regulation, the new START treaty, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, etc. are nothing to sneer at. But something the administration barely seems to recognize is that political activists do not live on policy accomplishments alone. Small donations, volunteer time, and even voting itself are undertaken primarily in exchange for psychological benefits. People engaged in the process want—need—to feel good about themselves for doing it.

This is something candidate Obama understood very well. People felt happy about the idea of being part of the election. But since taking office, the White House has largely avoided offering this kind of succor to the progressive base. The president likes to present himself as a “pragmatist” uninterested in questions of ideology, and his political strategy is largely organized around a posture of unctuous reasonableness in which he never loses patience with the opposition or affiliates himself emotionally with the passions that drive activists. This pose has bothered many for a long time, but with the progressive tide receding it’s becoming a real problem. Fundamental change is hard, and moving further forward will likely first require a years-long holding action of the kind that’s prone to fostering depression and demobilization.

Fortunately, a great opportunity to turn this around now exists as the president must choose the first head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The presumptive choice is Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law School professor whose work inspired the office’s creation. Her doubters inside and outside the administration raise a variety of objections, ranging from a lack of administrative experience to concern over whether she’d be a good “team player.” They also observe, correctly, that other candidates, like current Assistant Treasury Secretary Michael Barr, have a strong record on these issues and would do a good job. And so they would. But in terms of emotional impact, nothing will make a difference like Warren. As one attendee put it to me, “what a great signal it would send.” Tellingly, he’s an environmentalist. His work has, really, nothing to do with Warren or financial regulation. But he wants—and needs—a signal that the president cares about the people who’ve been fighting the good fight for years and may or may not continue doing so in the future.

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats .