On May 12, 2009, I attended a briefing at the White House as part of a group of grassroots activists and community artists. Mike Strautmanis, Chief of Staff for the Office of Public Liaison and top White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, made some remarks about how community activists have a seat at the table as the Obama Administration sets the agenda for change. I raised my hand. Sometimes, I said, the role of advocates isn't to be inside at the table, but entirely outside the room, "creating the political space needed for change".
Strautmanis bristled visibly. He criticized the "professional left" (he didn't use this exact phrase, but it's what he meant) for approaching the Obama Administration with an "outdated mindset", holding protest signs outside the fence instead of realizing what it means to be "inside the fence". At the same time, he not-so-subtly warned that those who criticized the Administration, instead of cooperating, would find themselves back on the outside.
Throughout early 2009, stories suggest Strautmanis' threat wasn't hollow. The White House convened a weekly meeting called "Common Purpose" at which DC progressive organizations were invited for what many have called a "very one-way" conversation where the White House dictated its agenda and appealed to the professional left for back-up. In April, 2009, according to people who were at one Common Purpose meeting, White House advisors told the "professional left" to tone down rhetoric about huge bonuses paid to AIG executives. The left, in general, toned it down.
In August 2009, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel made a rare appearance at a Common Purpose meeting to scold progressive groups in Washington for attacking conservative Democrats in Congress who were obstructing progressive policies on Capitol Hill. Emmanuel called the strategy "f***ing retarded" and ordered the professional left to cease and desist. Much of the left did, in fact, stop the attacks on Blue Dog Democrats.
The under-reported scandal here is not that the White House tried to control and muzzle the professional left. The scandal is that the left, for the most part, complied.
Firedog Lake blogger Jane Hamsher has been almost singularly brave in covering this. Back in April 2009, Hamsher wrote:
There's a big problem right now with the traditional liberal interest groups sitting on the sidelines around major issues because they don't want to buck the White House for fear of getting cut out of the dialogue, or having their funding slashed.
I don't share White House Spokesperson Robert Gibbs' outrage that the "professional left" is currently being too critical of President Obama. What I am outraged about is that the professional left wasn't more critical of Obama a year ago.
As I have written before, President Obama's election was historic. Unfortunately, while progressives arguably laid the ideological groundwork for his victory, Obama pretty much won with his own charisma and field infrastructure. The left, with the possible exception of MoveOn and SEIU, could take little concrete credit for Obama's election. This, combined with an overarching and persistent lack of ambition and bravery that plagues the American left today, rendered Washington's non-profit liberal elite more than grateful to be lap dogs on a short leash held by the White House.
Throughout the fall of 2009, while progressives outside Washington feared the chances for single-payer health care and humane immigration reform were slipping away, professional progressive advocates in Washington hung all their hopes on the White House. I was in several meetings through the early fall of 2009 in which DC liberal leaders tamped down on any plans that might "upset the White House", a phrase used on at least on two occasions. It was not whispered with embarrassment or secrecy. The professional left firmly believed that President Obama would carry our agenda.
This belief started to fade as the fight for the public option was not only lost but when it became clear that the President and his team had sold the public option out early on in a bid to please the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries. Right around then, in early 2010, you could literally watch the professional left abandon its doe-eyed rhetoric and find its teeth -- and moral compass -- again. Then came disappointment around immigration and climate change, which the White House initially pledged to take the lead on but then backed away from, and the left's collective crush on Obama cracked faster than his approval ratings. Whether on the topic of off-shore drilling or deportation rates and border crackdowns, progressive advocates have been much less shy lately in telling Obama what-for.
Yet all evidence suggest that, from early on, President Obama failed to definitively side with ordinary Americans in the struggle against the tyrannical interests of big business and Wall Street. John Judis writes in his excellent analysis in The New Republic:
Obama's policy followed the same swerving course as his rhetoric. One week, he would favor harsh restrictions on bank and insurance-company bonuses, but, the next week, he would waver; one week, he would support legislation allowing bankruptcy judges to reduce the amount that homeowners threatened with foreclosure owed the banks; the next week, he would fail to protest when bank lobbyists pressured the Senate to kill these provisions. But, more importantly, Obama-in sharp contrast to Roosevelt in his first months-failed to push Congress to immediately enact new financial regulations or even to set up a commission to investigate fraud.
Perhaps if the "professional left" had been doing its job and holding the President accountable early on -- not in the spirit of destroying his presidency but, rather, strengthening it -- there would not have been such a vacuum of public frustration into which Right wing critics could easily step. The White House was naïve to not distinguish between constructive criticism and destructive criticism at a time when listening to the former might have helped avoid much of the calamity in which the Presidency now finds itself. Instead, by trying to be superficial friends with both sides, Obama and his team have ostensibly made enemies on all sides of the aisle. Except with big business and Wall Street. They're still good friends with them.
The irony in all of this is that the left is now blaming the Obama Administration for public discontent with liberal policies and solutions. A year ago, the professional left ceded all responsibility to the White House. And now they're ceding all the blame. And that's where Mr. Gibbs' characterization is really wrong: There's nothing professional about that!