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Winter Storms (Political and Otherwise)

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One of the great things about going home (Nebraska and northwest Missouri) for the Christmas vacation, especially in a year like this, is that you get to brag to everyone when you get back about the weather. Freezing rain the day we flew in, 15 inches of snow on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day (and we still did the full family Christmas dinner at my mom's), 40 mile an hour winds, minus 5 degrees Celsius one night. I feel so hearty and toughened up. My only regret is that it was 2 degrees when we left, but got down to minus 14 degrees yesterday, so now I'm feeling like I missed out on some even better weather to brag about.

Having survived all that, I am now back in DC eager to see the health care reform fight finally finished and the political focus move on to all those other easy issues: financial reform, jobs legislation, the energy bill, immigration reform. It should all be a walk in the park. Or maybe not.

President Obama has done plenty of things to infuriate me, but you have to give him credit: he has been willing to take on the biggest, most intractable, most complicated and messy issues around. I wish his proposals had gone further; I wish he hadn't made some of the compromises and tactical decisions he had; I wish he had fought harder and communicated better on important policy choices. But he deserves a lot of credit for taking on these huge issues and trying to get them done -- it shows a courage few politicians have.

The truly mystifying thing is how he has handled the politics of it. As I wrote in my last post of 2009, it takes special talent to take on all these big issues that progressives have been dreaming of working on for decades and yet have your activist base this disillusioned. So what is going on?

Some Democrats argue that the problem is with the progressive activist community itself, and that their unhappiness really isn't that big a problem anyway: most Democrats still like Obama, according to the polls, and where are those progressives going to go anyway? They argue that progressive leaders are just being whiny, and their whining doesn't matter. In fact, these Democrats argue, it is good that Obama has a lot of the lefties mad at him because it just demonstrates to the country what an independent centrist Obama really is.

I first heard these kinds of arguments as I was just entering politics in the 1970s, as the folks defending Jimmy Carter were telling people it was healthy for Carter to be distancing himself from the crazy liberals in the Democratic Party. I heard them in 1994 as moderate Democrats assured each other they would survive by distancing themselves from the "liberalism" of the national party. I heard them in 2002 when the top people in the party assured us that by putting the Iraq war vote behind us, we could refocus on other key issues and win the 2002 elections.

I have made this argument before, and will likely make it in my last blog post before I depart this mortal coil: Democrats win by uniting their base with swing voters, not by playing the two against each other. I am not one of those progressives who argue that you can win only by motivating progressives, but I do know it's essential that Democrats have them fighting hard on their behalf, as opposed to fighting with Democrats trying to win elections in a challenging year.

President Obama should be the president who gets this instinctively. He won by energizing volunteers and small donors hungry for change, people who gave and raised hundreds of millions of dollar and knocked on millions of doors. Those progressive activists successfully reached swing voters in neighborhood after neighborhood, and with a message of hope and change won the presidential election by the most decisive margin in 24 years. By taking on the big issues progressives have been passionately wanting to take on, he should have been able to keep that dream, and that fire, alive. But Democratic approval ratings for Obama have been dipping, online donations are down, it was very tough recruiting volunteers for campaigns last year, and Democratic base turnout was way down in the off-year elections. Most dangerous of all, the passion progressive activists have for helping and defending Obama in water cooler and neighborhood conversations with their friends is missing.

How did it come to this? Yes, expectations were too high to be immediately fulfilled. And some of the policy decisions have gone the conservatives' way, such as Afghanistan, banking policy and some of the compromises in the health care bill. But I think the paradox of a president working for universal health care and regulation of Wall Street and a huge new government role in climate change and comprehensive immigration reform finding himself with big problems with his base is too complicated to be easily explained away. I have a lot of theories about all this, and plan to be writing about the subject a lot in the coming year, but what I or others write about the subject is a lot less important than President Obama and his political team really examining this subject in some depth and coming up with a serious strategy to deal with it. Ignoring the problem, writing it off as unimportant, or even intentionally inflaming it (as unnamed White House officials seem to love to do) are all very bad ideas, because you cannot win elections or big legislative battles while fighting an even hotter civil war within your own team.

15 inches of snow, 40 mile an hour winds, minus 14 degree temperatures? Come the November election, it will look like a sunny day in May for Democrats in comparison if the president doesn't figure out how to rally his base. It is time for the White House to pay some attention to this problem.