Obama Needs Liberals Back On His Side

The president's party desperately needs to rev up liberals to stave off disaster this fall. So why does he keep punching them in the face?

Barack Obama and Joseph Biden walk to the Rose Garden to make a statement on the economy at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010. Joshua Roberts / Bloomberg via Getty Images

In case you hadn’t heard, yes Barack Obama did go before a $30,000-per-person Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Greenwich, Connecticut—the hedge-fund capital of the world—and (at the home, I kid you not, of a guy named “Rich Richman” ) complain about how silly his base was being.

(Laughter.) "If we get an historic health-care bill passed—oh, well, the public option wasn’t there. If you get the financial-reform bill passed—then, well, I don’t know about this particular derivatives rule, I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with that. And gosh, we haven’t yet brought about world peace and—(laughter.) I thought that was going to happen quicker." (Laughter.)

Yuck, Yuck yuck. I suppose it is mere coincidence that on the same day your remarks appeared, The New York Times ran a story explaining that union members, like other important parts of the Democratic base, are not feeling particularly enthusiastic about the party—a reality that, in turn, further dampens the Democrats’ chances of holding onto their congressional majorities.

I know they’re paying me to make sense of this stuff, but this one’s really beyond me. I mean, put yourselves in their shoes. Let’s say you’re the president of a country whose political opposition is going nuts. On television, pretty much every day, you find yourself compared to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Satan. A respected leader of the party, much admired in the media, says you are motivated by “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior,” and that your presidency amounts to “a wonderful con.” Another one says your health plan is designed to murder old folks. And backed up by an estimated $400 million in unaccountable corporate and conservative spending, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Perhaps now might not be the best time to make those folks—the ones who believed in you most deeply and committed themselves to your candidacy most passionately—feel like complete schmucks for believing in you in the first place.

With your own party heading for disaster in the polls, a number of its candidates are running away from you faster than you can say, “You really considered this guy for vice president?” In the meantime, a number of your most devoted supporters are noticing that in your quest to make deals with the same folks—the ones who hate you and the ones who are running away from you—you appear to be letting go of more than a few promises you made to them during your election campaign: promises that, presumably, had something to do with why they supported you in the first place.

Tina Brown: The Mayors Who Can Revive AmericaMichelle Goldberg: The Original Mama GrizzliesMichael Fullilove: Obama is the World’s Community Organizer After all, who was the guy who said "Any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange... including a public option"? Or that “the choice of a public insurance option” was one of his “ three bedrock requirements for real health-care reform”? And mentioned that thing about promising to “put in place the common-sense regulations and rules of the road I've been calling for since March—rules that will keep our market free, fair, and honest; rules that will restore accountability and responsibility in our corporate boardrooms"? And let’s not even mention the fellow who got his dander up about Gitmo, rendition, and restoring America’s reputation for following the rule of law in its struggle against Islamic fundamentalism. Perhaps now might not be the best time to make those folks—the ones who believed in you most deeply and committed themselves to your candidacy most passionately—feel like complete schmucks for believing in you in the first place.

Oh sure, they shut up and took it when Rahm Emanuel called liberals “fucking retarded” for even imagining that the president could be induced to stick to his guns on the public option. And the unions, who provide the armies of phone bankers and door knockers during election time, could deal, if necessary, with Rahm yelling “Fuck the UAW” when it came time to figure out how to save the auto industry. They sat back patiently when Politico portrayed White House officials as “contemptuous of what they see as liberal lamentations unhinged from historical context or contemporary political realities.” They even managed to get over it when presidential spokesperson Robert Gibbs told those guys from The Hill he thought liberal complainers “ought to be drug tested,” were “crazy” and would only “be satisfied when we have Canadian health care and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.”

Look, we understand that politics is a frustrating business and holding together the disparate coalition that is the Democratic Party these days is no simple matter. But facing an “ enthusiasm gap” of epic proportions between a right-wing base that is “ loaded for bear” and a Democratic one that is bordering on catatonic, what possible sense can it make to unload on the folks you should be trying hardest to motivate? Just who the hell do you expect to go out and vote Democratic this November? Somehow I don’t think the pundits at the Post and Politico who enjoy this kind of thing are going to be enough.

Perhaps you know what you’re doing, Mr. President, but if you ask me, it’s, well, Rahm would know what to say about it, if he weren't being such a *$%#YI$#!* ^@#YUI

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.