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Sahil Kapur Headshot

Obama Cannot Afford to Lose Progressives

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President Obama is losing steam among his most ardent progressive supporters, and this could spell danger for his presidency. As his first year comes to a close, it's hard to forget how critical this base was in electing him, be it by organizing, fundraising, blogging, knocking on doors or making phone calls. But that was the easy part, and now he needs them more than ever.

If I were Obama, my New Year's Resolution would be to regain and preserve the trust of the progressive base, not just for his sake but for the country's.

The major backlash revved up after he parted ways with the public option in the health care bill. The anger had been brewing for months as many liberals thought Obama wasn't being forceful enough on the public plan (or financial regulation, bigger stimulus, carbon cuts ...). Bloggers revolted, activists rebelled, and Howard Dean said he won't "vigorously" support him any longer.

"I will not be a perfect president," Obama often says. "But I can promise you this: I will always tell you what I think and where I stand. I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face."

Progressives don't seem sold on this anymore. There's a growing sense in the base that Obama has shunned them, or was never really one of them, or is taking them for granted.

To be sure, passing health care reform, flawed as the final bill is, will be a huge victory. And maybe Obama's calculation was right and a public option simply wasn't achievable. But the main source of frustration is that Obama was too elusive from the start about where exactly he stood on this leading progressive priority. He didn't level with them and explain the circumstances surrounding its demise, or seem to even fight to save it.

Instead, he told the Washington Post that he "didn't campaign on the public option," a highly curious claim progressives immediately ripped apart.

It's conceivable that Obama personally wants more progressive reforms on health care (and other issues) and thinks he's getting the best possible deals. But he needs to make that clear, and be more forthcoming about the compromises he makes and why they're necessary.

If Obama was more transparent about the deals he cut at the different stages of the health reform process, progressives would feel warmer towards him and the final outcome. Reasonable people understand there are constraints on presidential power. They won't blame him every time they don't get exactly what they want, as long as they trust he's fighting for their principles -- the ones he campaigned on. Today, that's not so clear.

Obama has shown an impressive ability to navigate the hellish Washington terrain, but he's ceding ground where he needs not to. His outreach to conservatives and Republicans has been fruitless; most despise him (or least his whole agenda) and will continue to no matter what. What's worse is it's chipping away at his credibility with the base whose support was instrumental in his rise and will in no small part determine the success of his presidency.

It is movement progressives from places like Daily Kos and MoveOn who organized and fought and worked their tails off to put Obama where he is -- and are now disenchanted with him. Losing their support could lead to permanent legislative gridlock, with a hostile conservative movement, a swath of mostly politically inactive moderates, and a progressive base that no longer trusts him enough to help fight his battles.

Obama's dilemma is he doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a liberal ideologue. (Beltway media has seemingly morphed "liberal" from an adjective into a slur.) But his record shows he's anything but an inflexible browbeater, and there's a fine line between not standing for something and standing for nothing.

More important than Obama is the fact that America is in dire need of a progressive shift after a decade of right-wing policies that brought the nation to peril. That's what the sweeping Democratic victories of 2006 and 2008 were about. The reaction from progressives proves they won't be lapdogs for Obama. They'll continue to fight for their principles, and Obama should be more worried about losing their trust and enthusiasm than he seems today.