In the wake of his party's midterm elections rout, a profusion of political commentators -- including many prominent Democrats -- are urging President Obama to move to the right and focus on wooing Independent voters and Republicans. Obama appears eager to try to appease Republicans in the new Congress and chart a more centrist, Clintonian course. But, if only for reasons of political self-interest, he shouldn't discount the growing uneasiness toward his presidency among his party's base.
Nearly half of Democrats, according to a recent Associated Press poll, would like Obama to face a primary challenger in 2012. By a count of roughly two to one, Obama supporters do not believe he'll deliver on his promise to bring change to Washington. A third of Democrats do not think the president will be re-elected. Few expected the political climate to change so drastically, or for Obama to be facing a revolt within his own ranks, in just two years.
Back in 2008, Obama was the avatar of an unprecedented grassroots political movement and a new era in American politics. His campaign represented the culmination of an ambitious effort by Democrats to reshape their party by empowering local activists and organizers. After the 2004 election, when Karl Rove eagerly anticipated the dawn of a permanent Republican majority, Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's mad genius presidential campaign manager, wrote an influential op-ed in The Wall Street Journal entitled, "Only the Grassroots Can Save the Democratic Party." Later that year, Dean embraced that grassroots mantle when he unexpectedly became chair of the Democratic National Committee, vowing to revitalize the party at the local level in red and blue states alike. "The way to rebuild the Democratic Party is not from the consultants down, it is from the ground up," Dean said. His fifty-state strategy decentralized authority and elevated rank-and-file activists, which helped elect Democrats across the map in 2006 and 2008. The Obama campaign drastically expanded the political mobilization Dean sparked, on a scale nobody could predict. Yet the momentum didn't last -- and Democrats suffered the consequences in 2010.
After his election, Obama's backers hoped he would transform the very nature of governance in Washington, bringing millions of politically savvy supporters into the legislative process and building a parallel force that could thwart the entrenched power of wealthy corporate interests. Instead, in a bid to avoid the youthful mistakes of the Carter and Clinton years, Obama packed his White House with well-worn veterans of previous administrations, who embodied longevity over innovation and connections over change. A candidate who ran as a vessel for bottom-up politics assembled a surprisingly conventional, top-down, insider administration. "'Yes We Can' became 'Yes I Can,'" said Harvard University community organizing expert Marshall Ganz, a key adviser to Obama's campaign.
As a result, the spirit of grassroots organizing that animated Obama's campaign has been largely missing from his White House. His post-campaign arm, Organizing for America, became a mere afterthought and extension of the White House political operation. After running as change agents in '06 and '08, Democrats became the party of Washington and the status quo in 2010. They were punished accordingly.
Interestingly enough, at the very moment that Obama demobilized his grassroots movement, the Tea Party adopted the Dean/Obama playbook and ran with it, fielding insurgent candidates across the country, injecting much-needed energy into the GOP and taking over local parties from the bottom up. They forced establishment Republicans to pay attention to their agenda, through primaries and protests. The consequences weren't always beneficial to the Republican Party -- Tea Party-backed candidates squandered winnable races in places like Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware and Nevada -- but few can underestimate the impact these conservative activists had in 2010. The success of the Tea Party should be a reminder to progressive activists that pressure politics works. "Republicans fear their base and the Democrats hate their base," political commentator David Frum has argued. If they hope to shift that power imbalance, Democratic activists must prove to Democratic candidates that their support can no longer be taken for granted.
As he negotiates with Republicans going forward, President Obama must not forget about his left flank. Re-engaging with his grassroots base, in a real and meaningful way--not just a month before the election -- would be a good place to start.