With Friends Like These...

08/11/2010 08:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs recently expressed his frustration with what he called the "professional left," in no uncertain terms. Which, ironically, means the White House and the "professional left" have now achieved parity in that both sides express withering contempt for the other. The irony lies in the fact that both are probably thinking the exact same thing about each other: "With friends like these, who needs enemies?"

From the White House's point of view, lefties are not giving them sufficient credit for the things President Obama has managed to achieve with a fractious Congress and with an opposition party dedicated to the failure of any small shred of his agenda. From the Left's point of view, these are mostly hollow victories and were achieved at great price -- gutting the real reforms proposed, in exchange for something so watered-down it was barely worth passing (and certainly not worth praising). What all of this may mean is the opening round of the Washington game "Who's to blame?" which will likely start in earnest the day after the midterm elections this year.

Gibbs' comment was no mistake or slip of the tongue, though. He's certainly not the first White House official caught showing naked condescension towards his party's own base. As Mike Lux put it in the Huffington Post today:

There has been and will be a huge amount of commentary on this in the blogosphere and the media in general over the next few days, and Gibbs' quote will go right up there with the infamous "left of the left" quote during health care, Rahm's infamous "f'ing retarded" quote (he apologized afterward to advocates for those with mental disabilities, but of course not to progressives), the locker room gloating "organized labor just flushed $10 million down the toilet" quote, and a variety of other random insults that progressives have to chew over.

In other words, Gibbs wasn't exactly saying anything the Left hasn't already heard before from this White House, in various different ways. The only truly surprising thing is that Gibbs would feel that the time was appropriate to take another swing at the Left, less than three months before an election where Republicans have already built up a large "enthusiasm gap" over Democrats. Perhaps some will argue that Obama is playing multi-dimensional chess and is making some crafty move to try to regain his appeal among independents by showing his independence from the Left. If so, I'd have to say it's a bad political miscalculation.

To the White House's credit, Obama has gotten a lot done legislatively. But who would have thought, after witnessing his brilliant campaign, that Obama's biggest problem in his first few years in office would be one of communication? There's a reason people aren't giving Obama credit, and that reason is he doesn't appear to fight hard for anything other than putting a bill on his desk. Endlessly willing to compromise means that, when the dust has settled, it's a little hard to take credit for the outcome. Which Obama's White House hasn't even done a particularly good job of.

While at the recent Netroots Nation "professional left" convention, two things stuck out to me. The first was a point Ed Schultz made -- that Obama has never even tried to reach out to the "professional left" at all. Obama, Schultz pointed out, has made time to sit down for an interview with late-night comedians and "Fox News Sunday," but he has yet to appear on a show like Rachel Maddow's or Keith Olbermann's. Obama rarely gives press conferences anymore (I think there's been a single one this entire year), and seems to have bought so far into the "Obama is dangerously overexposed" myth that he now actually appears to be media-shy. Which doesn't exactly get his message out. Which is why there is a lack of credit for his accomplishments out here.

In contrast to Schultz, Nancy Pelosi presented a personal video from President Obama during her Netroots Nation speech. It was obviously crafted along the same lines as Gibbs' frustration and included a segment where Obama was given credit for his accomplishments. By way of a Rachel Maddow clip. In other words, the message is clear: The Obama White House will use lefty media to prop themselves up, but don't bother holding your breath for an actual interview with the president, because it ain't going to happen any time soon.

After which, the White House has the gall to say the "professional left" will never be satisfied and doesn't give them any credit. Well, guys, how about making the attempt in the first place? How about tossing the Left a bone every so often? It's been a long time since Obama's biggest liberal achievement (the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act), and I haven't noticed any push from the White House on any other lefty issue since. Health-care reform and Wall Street reform really don't count, as the White House severely disappointed the Left on both by arguing for weaker reforms instead of stronger in the final bill.

Legislation aside, how about giving an interview to a show or column with a Lefty audience? How about some genuine outreach to groups on the Left? Again, from the Mike Lux column:

Here's the other thing: Other Democratic politicians in 2010 get the need to work effectively with progressives. I have had my share of disagreements with Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid, but they and their staff have never failed to work constructively and conscientiously with me and other progressives I know. This is politics 101 as far as I am concerned, but to my knowledge, this White House isn't engaging in much of it. I am on the board of many different progressives groups, and know a wide assortment of folks in the blogosphere, in organizations, in the progressive donor world, on Capitol Hill, and I rarely hear about any kind of high-level outreach of this sort going on. One other important point on all this: what worries me the most is that I am as insider-y as a person can get. I have known Rahm for 30 years, Axelrod and Plouffe for over 20. I have been a client of Jim Margolis, Anita Dunn, and Axelrod's firms. I was a co-founder of Strategy Group, the Chicago based firm that was one of the closest inner circle firms in the Obama presidential campaign. I have worked in the White House, and I even worked on the Obama transition. I am one of the professional left (not at all the only one, by the way) who, in spite of my disappointments with some of the compromises made, ended up supporting, enthusiastically working for, and praising Obama on all those initiatives mentioned above. Now I know that some folks in the White House are mad at me and have shut me out because I have been critical at times of this White House, but I still have to think: If the relationship with the "professional left" is as shaky as it is, and someone like me is not being reached out to much or asked to help, what about all those bloggers and progressive media people and organizations who don't have much in the way of inside connections? It worries the hell out of me, and it ought to be worrying the White House.

What is really astonishing in all of this is the level of disconnect that apparently reigns at the White House. They see their polling numbers going south, and their knee-jerk reaction is to insult their own base? Really? That's the best idea you could come up with, at this point?

To which I have to say: No wonder there's an "enthusiasm gap." If anyone working in the White House doesn't get who is responsible for this, a quick look in a mirror may help clear it up for them. The White House seems to think that there's a small band of disenchanted lefties who make a whole bunch of noise, but that their army of volunteers out there in America is still behind Obama and isn't listening to the whining of a few cable hosts and bloggers. This is so misguided it is stunning.

Unlike some bloggers, I read and try to respond to people who comment on what I write. I may not answer every comment, but I try to at least read them all. And I can't count the number of times I have received some version of the following sad message:

"I was an Obama volunteer. I've never been involved in politics before, but I volunteered time (or traveled to a different state, or made phone calls, or walked precincts, etc... ) for Obama and thought I was doing something important. But Obama's recent betrayal on (insert issue here, there have been plenty of them) is a bridge too far for me. When he said (rosy campaign promise) out on the campaign trail, I believed him. Now he says (some sort of milquetoast "compromise" statement), which for the life of me I cannot understand. He refused to stand up and fight for (again, choose any from a number of issues), and I forgave him that. He didn't get everything he wanted in (choose some watered-down bill that got passed), and I still kept supporting him. But now that he has given in to the Republicans on (insert first issue mentioned), I can no longer support him. I doubt I'll even go vote this year, since obviously there is no difference whether we elect Democrats or not, the big corporations are the only ones who win."

That's a generic version. I have lost count of how many specific versions of this I've read in the past year. Some are heart-wrenching. Some of these people fought on the political front lines for Obama, and would have walked through fire for him the day after he was sworn in. Now, they don't even see the point in voting for a Democrat.

In case the White House doesn't understand this, allow me to spell it out plainly. These people are not the "professional left." They are Obama's base. They are the people who not only voted for him, but got excited about him and worked their asses off to put him where he is today. And a large number of them are now disgusted. Look at the approval polls -- Obama is now far below the percentage of Americans who voted for him. That means he's losing his own voters. And a big portion of that are the voters who were most enthusiastic about voting for him in the first place.

It's really not all that hard to understand. Obama could turn this around, if he chose to. Give a few interviews to Rachel and Keith. Give a few primetime press conferences, and make your own case why you deserve credit for your accomplishments. Toss the Left a bone every so often by actually fighting hard for one of their pet legislative ideas in Congress -- even if you lose. And for the love of all that's holy, stop trashing the people who make up your base.

The calls for Gibbs to step down or be fired are ludicrous. Gibbs' job is to be the voice of the White House. That's exactly what he did in his recent interview. He articulated the White House's frustration with their own base. Many others from this White House have done the same thing and not been fired (far from it). That is because that is how this White House (assumably, up to the man in charge himself) sees things. While scratching their heads at an enthusiasm gap less than three months from an election, someone had the bright idea: "let's go out and bash the Left, maybe that'll help things."

And you can't help but hear the sneering contempt on both sides -- both Gibbs' inner voice while giving the interview, and the immediate reaction from the lefties he was bashing: "With friends like these...." Which does not bode well for that enthusiasm gap getting any better any time soon, I have to say.


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