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Left Out: Obama and the Progressives

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Late last month, 107 California "progressives" flew East to a marathon White House briefing. It was preceded by a Capitol Hill cocktail party, attended by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Congressional luminaries. Aware that its base is eroding, the administration was wooing us, luring us back into the fold. "They were prepared to be yelled at," said a staffer at the Courage Campaign, the left-of-center online organizing network that coordinated the event.

The Office of Public Engagement holds weekly sessions for community leaders and pulled out its heavy-hitters. Presidential advisors Valerie Jarrett and David Plouffe, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson, and Chief of Staff Bill Daley fielded charges that Barack Obama has refused to play hardball, placed pragmatism over principle, lost control of the narrative.

"Code Red," one participant declared at the start of the session. The numbers bear him out. An online survey presented at the meeting found that 25% of progressives plan to work for Obama, compared to 54% in 2008. Support has dwindled among Latinos, African-Americans, and young people -- who voted for him two to one.

"Obama is the smartest man around," said Negeri Geleta, an Ethiopian cab driver I encountered that night. "But he needs to stand up for what he believes. He thinks if he's nice, the Republicans will play ball, but that's perceived as weakness. He's got a good heart... he should follow it, like [consumer advocate/senatorial candidate] Elizabeth Warren, in Massachusetts."

Governing is harder than campaigning, White House officials explained. Especially in the face of unprecedented "headwinds" and the hand President Obama was dealt. The argument resonated with activist Robert Waters, who came in threatening to move to Canada and left in Obama's court. The following day, he emailed Rep. Maxine Waters, politely requesting she lower her voice when criticizing the Chief Executive.

Though few participants were similarly transformed, most found the briefing worthwhile -- a chance to connect with allies, speak truth to power, hear the "inside-the-Beltway" case.
"Plouffe was all about "message," said Stacie Chaiken, a Los Angeles-based writer/performer. "But the rest seemed honest and sincere. Particularly impressive: contact information for various issues, invitations to White House conference calls. She opened an office for Obama in the last election and--despite his "mistakes"--will stomp for him again.

"I'm going to be inviting people who don't agree with me into my home." Chaiken says, "breaking through the traditional arrogance of The Left. If we want them to listen to us, we have to listen to them."

The Liberty Hill Foundation, a Los Angeles-based organization working for social change, sent an 18-member delegation. Darrell Tucci, Chief Development Officer and Director of Donor Services, found more common ground than expected. Since then, he's mounted support for petitions on LGBT rights and the Defense of Marriage Act. Those with more than 25,000 signatures in 30 days are guaranteed a response.

"We need to hold the administration's feet to the flames," says Tucci. "The conservatives have a louder voice so it's a David and Goliath struggle."

Pablo Rodriguez, executive director of Communities for a New California, has been calling for more immigration reform and exercise of Presidential power. The trip -- rather than the "talking points" -- hit home the challenge of "change."

"Being in Washington shocked me back into reality," says Rodriguez, a former United Farm Workers organizer. "Huge white buildings that never move--so much inertia. Maybe we--and Obama--underestimated how dirty politics can be."

A day in the White House doesn't erase three years, maintains Janette Robinson Flint, executive director of Black Women for Wellness, a health education and advocacy program. Solis didn't go to Wisconsin when collective bargaining rights were threatened. Neither did Obama. Words are one thing; action another.

"People came away with renewed possibility but our hopes have been raised, then dashed," she said. "'Once fooled, shame on you. Twice fooled, shame on me.' But this is all we've got."

Maybe so, says Martin Berg, a freelance writer and editor of "WheresOurMoney.org. But "movement-building" is a powerful tool. After D.C., he and his wife, Chaiken, headed to Occupy Wall Street and, then, to Occupy LA. The goal, he says, is putting pressure on a President who's been listening to the banks and the Tea Party. Thirty-seven percent of Americans support the protests, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

The briefing only confirmed his perceptions. says Bob Samuels, a UCLA lecturer on writing and media studies and president of the university-wide Council of the American Federation of Teachers. ("They're working with "bad material, no matter how you shine it.") Because he never regarded Obama as a "savior," he's not surprised at the turn of events. He's organizing UCLA groups to move the President to the Left--or start a third party, if necessary.

The notion of a new party appeals. But, strategically, it's courting disaster. (Take Ralph Nader out of the 2000 political equation and "W" would have been "history."). Progressives want the President to regain his "vision," toc act like he has a mandate. But we won't siphon off votes from his ticket--nor will we sit it out. Roe v. Wade, Social Security, health care reform....the stakes are too high. As a mayor running for re-election once put it: "Don't compare me to the Almighty; compare me to the alternative."

A former Los Angeles Times staff writer and Time Magazine correspondent, Elaine Dutka is a contributing reporter at NPR's KUSC Radio and a Los Angeles-based journalist.