09/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama, Progressives, and the Question of a Successful Presidency

In a post on May 28th called "A Successful Presidency", I wrote about the last few failed Presidents (LBJ, Ford, Carter, George H.W. Bush) before this last one, George W. Bush, who is arguably one of the two worst ever. After discussing these four, all of whom faced strong primary challengers from their disgruntled base, I wrote:

What happened in every one of these cases was that the President started with a lot of goodwill and support from the general public, but when they ran into trouble later in their term, the base turned on them, and once that happened, it was impossible to contain the damage. The reason for this is simple: your base is who fights for you and defends you when you are in political trouble, and if they aren't backing your play, you get cut to the bone- the damage goes deep. Trouble comes to every President, but you can survive it if you have troops on the ground who keep defending you and fighting your battles for you.

I raise this now because trouble has clearly come to this President; the economy is not getting better for most regular folks anytime soon, health care is in the balance, the Obama approval ratings keep dropping. I believe that the key to Obama's success at this fundamentally critical juncture is whether the President can get his base excited about him again, get them engaged in fighting by his side on the tough battles ahead. Health care reform will not pass without intense Democratic and progressive activism. Neither will the energy bill stuck in the Senate, or the banking regulations bill waiting for committee action in the fall, or the immigration fight next year.

Obama's re-election itself is the same way. You know those four Presidents I mentioned above who had tough primaries against candidates from their base, and then lost the general election? Those examples are part of a much larger trend in American history. In fact, since 1900, there have been 14 incumbents (including the Vice Presidents who took over for Presidents who had died) who have won re-election and not a single one faced a primary challenge. Meanwhile, there have been six incumbent Presidents who did not win re-election, only one of which (Hoover, in the midst of the Great Depression) went without a strong primary challenge.

Did primary challenges cause the incumbents to lose in the general? I think that would be an overstatement, but what those challenges did reflect was an unhappiness rising up from the party's base for Presidents in shaky political circumstances. And I'll add one more point to this analysis: George W. Bush had a lot of rocky moments in his first term, was not in great shape politically in 2004, but his passionate base carried him to victory. Bill Clinton was in huge political trouble in 1995, but his base stayed with him, and he survived his troubles and became all the stronger. Reagan had a terrible midterm in 1982, and a very weak approval rating through 1983, but his base stayed with him, and as the economy came back in 1983, he not only survived but won a landslide victory.

A story from the Clinton years, from the toughest, most divisive days of the NAFTA fight. I (thankfully) wasn't forced to work on NAFTA, but I was still talking to union folks every day about health care and other issues, and I knew the damage the fight was doing to our relationships.

We came up with the idea of getting the President to do a dinner and reception one night at the White House with labor leaders, all the union Presidents in the AFL-CIO, even the one who had been the toughest on us rhetorically during the NAFTA fight.

Clinton gave an amazing speech that night, basically saying that he knew we (him and the labor movement) would never agree on the fight, he knew how tough and divisive the battle was getting and how raw the emotions were, but that he wanted everyone to know that the White House was still their house, that they would always be welcome in it as long as he was resident, that he would always listen to them even when he disagreed, and that he would do everything in his power to help them on other issues. Then he stayed talking with people one on one and in small groups late into the night.

Did that solve all of our problems with labor rank and file in the health care debate, or the 1994 elections? No, of course not. But labor leaders also did not encourage Dick Gephardt to run in a primary against Clinton when he was at his weakest point in 1995, as many unions encouraged Ted Kennedy to take on Jimmy Carter in 1980. And they fought like tigers for him in the 1996 election, and in the impeachment fight, and most of Clinton's other big issue fights. That tough, awful NAFTA fight didn't break the bond between Clinton and labor. This is how a White House should operate with its progressive allies, not just labor but the broader progressive community as well.

The reason Bill Clinton did not have a primary fight in 1996 in spite of his being more of a moderate President in a tough political environment, and the reason he did not get deserted in the impeachment fight in spite of so many Democrats being appalled by the stupidity of his affair with Lewinsky, was because we always worked closely and respectfully with progressives, even when we disagreed. Contrast what Clinton did with labor leaders even as they were bitterly disagreeing with the White House, with the unnamed White House staffer who attacked the progressives who are actually fighting for the Obama health plan as "left of the left".

Now, fortunately, this attitude clearly doesn't permeate the White House in general. Valerie Jarrett, who welcomed progressives to the table when I worked in the Obama/Biden transition, happily accepted an invitation to Netroots Nation last weekend, and answered all questions, even the toughest, with a warm and welcoming attitude. Her entire team at the White House, especially Mike Strautmanis and Cecilia Munoz, does a great job of welcoming ideas and even dissent.

One of the reasons the unnamed staffers' quote generated so much attention and anger among progressives, though, is that it was reminiscent of the arrogance the Obama team showed throughout the campaign. Strautmanis was the only senior campaign staffer I knew who seemed to care at all about progressive outreach during the general election, and it wasn't his job (he was doing congressional liaison work). In fact the campaign publicly discouraged their donors from giving to outside progressive groups. And it did not go unnoticed that the last major caucus the President met with in the House was the Progressive Caucus, or that outreach to bloggers and progressive media has been slower and lesser than to a lot of conservative media folks.

The other key problem is the lack of passion Obama and his White House seem to bring to fighting for what matters to progressives. The tap dance they've been doing on whether Obama not just supports, but will fight for, a public option has been going on since the transition, and it's only one of many policies they are determined not to commit too much to. The unwillingness to pick fights and go toe-to-toe with insurers, drug companies, Wall Street, and other special interests is making the progressive community a lot less willing to pick fights for them.

You see the warning signs everywhere, from Paul Krugman's columns to Bill Maher monologues to the dropping numbers from Democrats in the latest DailyKos poll. But what worries me the most is the hard-core Obama people I know, the ones who were most excited about him during the campaign who are growing so disillusioned.

One question going forward is which strategy prevails in this White House- the more open and welcoming Jarrett/Strautmanis strategy, or the angry, arrogant strategy of the anonymous source trashing the left-of-the-left in The Washington Post the other day. More fundamentally, though, is this essential strategy question: will this White House choose to fight for things, such as the public option, that the base actually cares about, that makes us want to fight for Obama in return?

The answers to those questions will have an enormous amount to do with whether there is grassroots passion to push through health care reform and other major issues, whether or not there will be a destructive primary fight in 2012, whether or not Obama gets much activist help weathering the tough days ahead on the economy, and most important of all, whether his Presidency is judged a success by history. I have hope that he will come back from these troubles, because many Presidents have, and he is a good and smart man. But I'm starting to get nervous.