Obama's Base Cools As It Watches Him Compromise The president's liberal base is divided over health care, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Can he fire up Democrats in time for November's elections?
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Obama's Base Cools As It Watches Him Compromise

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Obama's Base Cools As It Watches Him Compromise

Obama's Base Cools As It Watches Him Compromise

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Twenty-ten promises to be a turbulent year for President Obama. There's the implacable Republican opposition in Congress, an energized conservative base, a fitful economic recovery, and on top of that, the president is dealing with a chorus of complaints from liberals.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson has this story about criticism of the president from the left.

MARA LIASSON: Adam Green is one of many ardent Obama supporters who've had their enthusiasm challenged this year. Green runs something called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which among other things runs a Web site called YesWeStillCan.org.

Mr. ALAN GREEN (Co-Founder, Progressive Change Campaign Committee): Many people went to the polls in 2008 and worked very hard for President Obama in 2008, with the expectation that they were supporting change we can believe in, and somebody who would really fight special interests on behalf of the little guy. And there's been a great sense of disappointment among some of President Obama's strongest supporters.

LIASSON: And if that doesn't change, Green says...

Mr. GREEN: It's looking like a lot of Democrats won't show up in 2010.

LIASSON: They either won't vote, or they won't volunteer as foot soldiers for Democratic candidates. The president hasn't actually lost much support among his base. Instead, polls show it's the intensity of support that's diminished. And surveys show it's the Republican grassroots base that's fired up and ready to go this year.

Adam Green's issue is health care, the public option in particular, which he feels the president bargained away without much of a struggle. And Green has some high-profile company. There was this unprecedented attack from a former chairman of the president's own party. Howard Dean blasted the legislation the president is supporting as the basis for a final bill.

Mr. HOWARD DEAN (Former Democratic National Committee Chairman): I'd kill the bill all entirely and have the House start reconciliation, which is what they should've done in the first place.

LIASSON: And there other disagreements. On Afghanistan, much of the Democratic base is opposed to the president's troop increase, although the Christmas bomber may have taken some of the heat out of that sentiment. Civil libertarians are impatient about closing down Guantanamo. Hispanic lawmakers want more White House action on immigration reform. And even members of the Congressional Black Caucus are complaining the president hasn't done enough for African-Americans. And then there's labor. They want action on a bill to make it easier to organize in the workplace.

Steve Rosenthal is the former political director of the AFL-CIO.

Mr. STEVE ROSENTHAL (Former Political Director, AFL-CIO): I do believe that if the Senate doesn't vote on the Employee Free Choice Act, that it's very possible that a number of unions, the unions that are most active politically, would be missing in action in key Senate states, in key Senate races across the country in 2010.

LIASSON: Why all this frustration from inside the president's own ranks? Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner of New York has a theory.

Representative ANTHONY WEINER (Democrat, New York): Despite the fact that the president waged an aspirational and fairly ideological campaign, he's turned out to be a fairly transactional president, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. You have to make deals to get legislation passed. But the problem is that many people in Congress don't know what he believes about some of the big issues that we're considering.

LIASSON: And that's ironic, says Weiner, because President Obama has made more progress toward the Democrats' cherished goal of universal health coverage than any other Democratic president.

Rep. WEINER: Look, health care should be an unvarnished win for Democrats. Unfortunately, a lot of the folks who are the animated base for President Obama and a lot of other Democrats are disappointed. Now, maybe it's because their expectations are too high. But it could also be that the president hasn't shown them the type of fight that they would like to see.

LIASSON: White House aides believe a lot of the liberal angst about health care will go away once the president actually signs a bill. And to the extent the Democrats have a problem motivating their core voters, they've got time to fix it, says White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer.

Mr. DAN PFEIFFER (White House Communications Director): We're not overly concerned about these things, first and foremost, because there isn't an election tomorrow, not an election the next day. We have a long time to deal with this.

LIASSON: The White House has plans this year to win back the allegiance of independent voters, and to rekindle the excitement of what they call the Obama expansion voters. Those new voters: African-Americans, Hispanics and young people the president attracted in 2008.

There will be a sharper focus on the economy and jobs, of course, but also new initiatives on transparency in government, getting rid of earmarks, tackling the deficit. And there's something else the president needs to do to get his base enthused again, says John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

Mr. JOHN PODESTA (Former Chief Of Staff, Clinton Administration): I do think they want to see the passionate Obama; the guy who they saw and rallied to in the context of the campaign, not just somebody with a pencil behind his ear trying to sketch out a path forward. And they want to see that fight back, but I suspect that they will be able see that.

LIASSON: And to make that happen, says Podesta, the president will need to get out of the scrum on Capitol Hill, spend less time cutting deals with lawmakers and more time leading like a president.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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