The real news behind White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' denunciation of the "professional left" in an interview published on Tuesday was not necessarily the criticism itself. It was the timing.
The administration has argued before that the progressive base is composed of daydreaming idealists with little idea of how government really works. But in each case, there was a compelling reason for the remarks. Senior adviser David Axelrod called Howard Dean "insane" last December after the former DNC chairman said health care reform should be scrapped with the public option and its various incarnations removed.
When anonymous administration officials said Big Labor flushed money down the toilet by backing Lt. Gov. Bill Halter's primary challenge against Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), it was driven both by the belief that those funds should have been used to protect endangered incumbents and by anger over the treatment the administration was getting from progressive backers at a nearby gathering.
"Folks are just tired," a White House aide said at the time, when asked to explain the anonymous criticism. "Especially with the [Campaign for America's Future conference] in town this week."
When Gibbs sat down with The Hill on Friday for this most recent interview, there was no obvious irritant that would have driven him to take swipes at the "professional left." He just took them.
"I hear these people saying he's like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested," the press secretary said. "I mean, it's crazy."
"They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we've eliminated the Pentagon," he added. "That's not reality."
The substance of the remarks was easy to dismiss. Obama himself has repeatedly touted the benefits of Canada-like single-payer health care, both as a senator and as president. Moreover, it would be hard to find even one prominent Democratic or progressive group in Washington that wants to eliminate the Pentagon. And, indeed, hours after the interview was published, Gibbs emailed a statement walking back the inartful remark and urging reconciliation within the Democratic tent.
But he didn't explain in depth why he made the remarks. Nor did Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton when he delivered the daily briefing in Gibbs' place later in the day.
Absent an answer, a number of theories have been proffered. There is, for starters, the growing and increasingly hostile relationship between the White House and cable news. When Gibbs said in his explanatory statement that he watched "too much cable," he meant it literally. Shortly before he sat down Friday afternoon with The Hill's Sam Youngman, a segment aired on MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan show (ostensibly a friendlier network to the president) in which the state-aid package that Congress was considering was deemed a bailout for the teacher unions.
"Day after day, it gets frustrating," Gibbs said, in a statement that a White House aide said was written with sincerity. "Yesterday, I watched as someone called legislation to prevent teacher layoffs a bailout -- but I know that's not a view held by many, nor were the views I was frustrated about."
That's one element of the frustration the White House feels. There are others as well, including the belief that it's not fair to criticize Obama for pushing an individual mandate for health insurance coverage when, during the campaign, he was criticized for not having a mandate in his plan at all. But these anecdotes are mere sparks that contributed to the fractious relationship between the White House and professional progressives rather than persuasive explanations for why the relationship became fractious in the first place.
A more conspiratorial argument is that the administration doesn't seem to necessarily mind the perception that it's at odds with its base. One top Republican strategist suggested that the comments were deliberate and intended to squelch the notion that the White House is staffed with socialist schemers. Because Obama was never overly dependent on the netroots or labor community to help him get elected, his aides may indeed be more willing to cross those people than cater to them.
But the most persuasive explanation may be that Gibbs' comments aren't unique at all. They are a feature of many establishment Democratic politicians such as the Clinton White House, which saw virtue in centrism and triangulation. As another example, the Democratic campaign committees have pushed for moderate, socially conservative Democrats to run in difficult districts over the last decade. And there was Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, which accepted its frosty relationship with the netroots as a fait accompli and even privately lashed out at MoveOn.org.
Republicans run to their base, the logic goes. Democrats run from it.
Obama overcame the skepticism of the "professional left" during the campaign by inspiring its members. Once he got to the nitty-gritty of governance, however, that ability to inspire dwindled and the more natural relationship -- mutual distrust -- took over.
"The 'professional left' never asked Obama for the impossible," said Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos, "just for what was promised during the campaign. Political realities may have forced him to under-deliver, but under-deliver he did, oftentimes in ugly fashion as we watched a broken Senate take good legislation and water it down to near-irrelevancy. Meanwhile, the White House was always there, enabling the obstructionism of the Joe Liebermans and Max Baucuses of the caucus. So what's left? Obama may remain popular, but there is a real intensity gap that threatens Democratic congressional majorities this fall. That has nothing to do with the 'professional left', and everything to do with the broader base."
Moulitsas went on to note that the entire debate, as it has been waged to this point, is largely irrelevant. Elections aren't decided by inside-the-Beltway snipping but by broad economic trends. This is true. So too is the fact that the president, despite all the supposed frostiness, has not slipped far in his standing with professional left supporters. In late June, a straw poll taken at Netroots Nation had Obama's approval rating at a "robust" 84 percent with only 16 percent expressing disapproval.
But those stats still manage to cloud the friction. Addressing the controversy during the briefing on Tuesday, Burton sought to delineate between "what folks say on cable TV from what progressives around the country think about how things are going." The professional left, his message went, is not representative of the progressives who voted for Obama.
"Well, the Obama in the White House is not the Obama who organized, campaigned, raised money and ran for office, so I guess it's a wash," responded Jane Hamsher of progressive website Firedoglake.com.