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Obama's Base Cools As It Watches Him Compromise

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses during a town hall meeting on healthcare at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee August 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. Obama answered questions from people on his plan for healthcare reform during the town hall.
Alex Wong
U.S. President Barack Obama pauses during a town hall meeting on healthcare at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee August 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. Obama answered questions from people on his plan for healthcare reform during the town hall.

President Obama will begin his second year in office buffeted by some strong political crosswinds. He faces implacable Republican opposition in Congress, an energized conservative base outside Washington, and an anemic economic recovery.

And if all that weren't bad enough, he is also dealing with a chorus of complaints from liberal Democrats, as well as the prospect that turnout among his core supporters will be depressed in November's midterm elections.

Adam Green is one of many ardent Obama supporters who have had their enthusiasm challenged this year. He runs an organization called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which among other things operates a Web site called

Green says that those who campaigned and voted for Obama in 2008 thought they were supporting a candidate who would "fight special interests on behalf of the little guy."

But now, a year into his term, his core supporters are jaded.

"There has been a great sense of disappointment among some of President Obama's strongest supporters," Green says.

If that doesn't change, he says, a lot of Democrats either won't vote or won't volunteer as foot soldiers for Democratic candidates in the upcoming year.

Intraparty Conflict

The president hasn't actually lost many supporters among his base. Instead, polls show that it's the intensity of his support that has diminished and the Republican grass-roots base is the one fired up and ready to go for the next election cycle.

Green's issue is health care — the public option in particular — which he feels the president bargained away much too easily. He's not alone in his disillusionment. In an unprecedented attack from a former chairman of the president's own party, Howard Dean blasted the legislation the president is supporting as the basis for a final bill.

"I'd kill the bill entirely and have the House start with reconciliation, which is what they should have done in the first place," Dean says.

There are other intramural disagreements within the Democratic Party. Much of the Democratic base is opposed to the president's troop increase in Afghanistan, although the alleged Christmas bomber may have taken some of the heat out of that sentiment.

Civil libertarians are angry Obama hasn't yet closed down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Hispanic lawmakers want more White House action on immigration reform, and even members of the Congressional Black Caucus are complaining he hasn't done enough for African-Americans.

And then there's labor. It's a slightly smaller part of the Democratic vote than it used to be, but still crucial to the party in a midterm election. Steve Rosenthal, former political director of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations — the AFL-CIO — thinks Democrats will lose support with labor if it delays action on a bill that would make it easier to organize unions.

"I do believe that if the Senate doesn't vote on the Employee Free Choice Act, that it's very possible that a number of unions, the unions that are most active politically, would be missing in action in ... key Senate races across the country in 2010," says Rosenthal.

Are Expectations Too High?

Why all this frustration from inside the president's own ranks? Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York has a theory.

"Despite the fact that the president wages an aspirational and ideological campaign, he's turned out to be a very transactional president, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. You have to make deals to get legislation passed," Weiner says. "But the problem is that many people in Congress don't know what he believes about some of the big issues we are considering."

And that's ironic, Weiner says, considering President Obama has made more progress toward the Democrats' cherished goal of universal health coverage than any other Democratic president in a century. In what Weiner says should have been an unvarnished win for Democrats, Obama has actually lost support from his base.

"[It] may be it's because their expectations are too high, but it could also be the president hasn't shown them the type of fight that they would like to see," Weiner says.

White House aides believe a lot of the liberal angst about health care will go away once the president actually signs a bill. And to the extent that the Democrats have a problem motivating their core voters, they've got time to fix it.

"We're not overly concerned about these things, first and foremost because there isn't an election tomorrow, not an election the next day," says Dan Pfeiffer, White House communications director.

The White House has plans this year to win back the allegiance of independent voters and to rekindle the excitement of what they call the "Obama expansion voters." Those are the new voters — African-Americans, Hispanics and young people — the president attracted in 2008. There will be a sharper focus on the economy and jobs, of course. But there will also be new initiatives on transparency in government, getting rid of earmarks and dealing with the deficit.

And there's something else the president needs to do to get his base enthusiastic again, according to John Podesta, former chief of staff to Bill Clinton: Obama must get out of the scrum of Capitol Hill so voters can see him spending more time governing like a president and less time legislating like the senator he used to be.

"I do think they want to see the passionate Obama," Podesta says, "not just a somebody with a pencil behind his ear trying to sketch out a path forward."