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Barack Obama Is Not the First President to Receive Heat From His Base

Posted: 06/26/2013 3:26 pm

Barack Obama has spent an inordinate amount of time during his second term in office fending off attacks. These attacks are not exclusively coming from conservatives: Many are coming from the progressive base of the Democratic Party.

A large portion of progressives held their noses and supported the president in the 2012 presidential election. With the president safely re-elected, the base is expressing displeasure with the president. The left-wing has come out full throttle with a list of grievances directed toward the president, including his use of predator drones, his signing of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 (which includes a provision allowing the federal government to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely if suspected of terrorism), and his support for reductions in cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients.

Obama is not the first president to offend the base of his party. In fact, his sins to the party faithful pale in comparison to the scorn heaped on some of his predecessors by their bases.

In 1840, the nation elected the Whig Party ticket of William Henry Harrison for president and John Tyler for vice president. Harrison died just 31 days into his presidency and was succeeded by Tyler. In his first year in office, Tyler shocked his base by vetoing most of his party's legislative agenda, including legislation to establish a national bank, to increase protective tariffs, and to allocate revenue to improving American waterways. These were the flagship issues of the party. As a result, Tyler was excommunicated from the party and his entire cabinet, excluding U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster, resigned their positions in protest. In response, Tyler formed his own party, called the Democratic Republicans, which nominated him for president in 1844. However, his candidacy gained little traction and Tyler abandoned his candidacy in August of that year.

In 1883, Republican President Chester A. Arthur signed into law the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. The act requires the hiring and promotion of federal employees to be based on merit rather than on political connections. In addition, the law made it a crime to raise political money on federal property. Arthur was a member of the "Stalwart" faction of the Republican Party, which opposed Civil Service Reform. When he succeeded to the Presidency upon the death of President James Garfield, Arthur changed his prior position and became a vociferous exponent of Civil Service Reform, shepherding the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act through the U.S. Congress. As might be expected, this inflamed U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling (R-NY), Arthur's political mentor. As a result, Arthur did not receive "Stalwart" backing in the 1884 nomination sweepstakes and did not receive the GOP presidential nomination.

While many today view Franklin D. Roosevelt as the epitome of liberalism, there was a proliferating Socialist movement on the Democratic left and they viewed Roosevelt as a tribune of Wall Street and as a liberal apostate. The left argued that Roosevelt's domestic program: "The New Deal," was woefully insufficient, and would preserve the capitalist system. Many progressives were lining up to support U.S. Senator Huey Long (D-LA) in a potential challenge to Roosevelt for renomniation in 1936. Long supported a more radical domestic program called: "Share the Wealth," which included a maximum wage of a million dollars a year and a minimum wage of $4,000 a year. The campaign never came to fruition, as Long was assassinated in 1935. In addition, the Southern Tenants Union became disenfranchised with Roosevelt, contending: " too often the progressive word has been the clothing for a conservative act. Too often he has talked like a cropper and acted like a planter."

During his second term, many liberals were further inflamed with FDR for his fiscal austerity measures, which also included truncating federal spending. Many progressives in fact blamed FDR's austerity measures for prolonging the Great Depression.

All recent presidents have had problems with their bases. The first two years that Lyndon B. Johnson was in office represented a high watermark for American liberalism as the president called for "A Great Society." His ambitious domestic agenda included waging a War on Poverty, establishing Medicare, and the signing of two monumental Civil Rights Acts. In 1965, the president was virtually unstoppable legislatively, signing 84 of his administration's 87 proposals into law.

The rest Johnson's term was enveloped by the escalation of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Liberals gradually broke from the president, protesting the war. A formidable "Dump Johnson" movement gained force. Then, after barely wining the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary in 1968, Johnson announced to the nation: "I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my Party for another term as your president."

Gerald R. Ford was viewed with suspicion by the conservative base of the Republican Party for his support for détente (relaxation of tensions with the Soviet Union). In the spirit of détente, Ford refused to meet at the White House with Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In addition, Ford signed the Helsinki Accords. Under this agreement (also signed by the Soviet Union and a host of other nations), each nation agreed to respect the autonomy of each country in Europe and not encroach on their territory. Ford withstood a redoubtable challenge in the Republican Primaries by former California Governor Ronald Reagan who said the Helsinki Accords put a "stamp of approval on Russia's enslavement of the captive nations."

Democrat Jimmy Carter was viewed with suspicion from his party as well. When it appeared that his populist grassroots campaign was heading toward victory, top Democrats instituted an unsuccessful "Stop Carter Movement." Carter who had run for the Presidency as a political outsider, assumed the office intent on reforming Washington. Carter came from the more moderate wing of the Democratic Party. As such, he supported fiscal austerity and favored balanced budgets over government spending. A more liberal wing of the party more sympathetic to the policies of the last Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson, predominated the Congressional Majority. They came to view Carter as too conservative for their party. In fact, Many Democrats supported his rival for the Democratic nomination in 1980, Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy. In a Kennedy advertisement, television actor Carroll O'Connor, who played Archie Bunker in the hit TV series All in the Family, exclaimed that: "Jimmy Carter may be the most Republican president since Herbert Hoover."

Though Republican Ronald Regan is apothtiasized by many conservatives today, he came under intense scrutiny from some on the right for signing the largest tax increase since WWI. Reagan also came under conservative scrutiny for signing legislation increasing the Payroll and Federal Gas Tax. Conservative activist Richard A. Viguerie said during Reagan's Presidency: "Mr. Reagan is now seen as untrustworthy by many conservatives who believe he has betrayed his own principles in an effort to appease his critics on such domestic issues as education, welfare, the budget, and taxes."

Reagan also took heat from the right on foreign policy. In 1985, when it was announced that President Ronald Reagan would meet with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich (R-GA) warned that the meeting would be "The most dangerous summit for the West since Adolph Hitler met with Chamberlain [British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, 1937-1940] in 1938 in Munich."

In addition to this, the conservative intelligencia felt betrayed when Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with the Soviet Union. The treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges. At the time, there was vociferous opposition to the treaty's ratification in the U.S. Senate. In fact, sixty conservative organizations signed a petition warning that the treaty would bring the United States "Into strategic or military inferiority." In fact, conservatives ran newspaper advertisements comparing the treaty to Munich. The ads read: "Appeasement is as unwise in 1988 as in 1938."

Obama is not alone in being chastised from his party's ideological base. In many respects, it is a political "right of passage" for a president's base at some point to become offended.

 

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