Obama's On-Again, Off-Again Relationship With Progressives President Obama handily won re-election, but Congress remains fairly unchanged. Will the status quo prevail during his second term? Or will he follow through on promises that got progressives excited about him in 2008?
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Obama's On-Again, Off-Again Relationship With Progressives

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Obama's On-Again, Off-Again Relationship With Progressives

Obama's On-Again, Off-Again Relationship With Progressives

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

When Barack Obama first took office four years ago, many progressives were on cloud nine. Here was a president pledging to tackle some of the issues closest to the progressive base, like climate change, gun control and what he called our broken immigration system.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And I will make it a top priority in my first year as president. We understand the gravity of the climate threat. We are determined to act. We can make certain that those who are mentally deranged are not getting hold of handguns.

LYDEN: And those comments came in 2008 and 2009. Today, they're just a few of the unresolved issues leaving progressives unsatisfied. Now, with a second Obama administration soon upon us, some progressives are wondering if President Obama will reboot in this term. That's our cover story today: progressives and the president. Will it always be a glass half full or even just a quarter?


LYDEN: Shaun Johnson is one progressive voter heartily disappointed in President Barack Obama. He's an assistant professor of elementary education at Towson University in Maryland, and he writes for a blog called the Chalk Face. He wrote a column in 2011 called "Obama Lost My Vote," so we asked him to talk about why. He says that when President Obama first ran in 2008, he was an ardent supporter. He even knocked on doors.

SHAUN JOHNSON: I volunteered for the campaign in the state of Indiana, and I was completely elated when he won that state, the first time a Democrat's won it since '64. And so I was really excited by that. And I think at the time, a lot of people, especially within the education community, got all whipped up into anti-Bush sentiment and the anti-No Child Left Behind sentiment, and so they were really looking forward to a shift in education policy. But there's not a lot of daylight between traditional Democratic and Republican educational policies.

LYDEN: What other specific things in this column, "Obama Lost My Vote," disappointed you so deeply?

JOHNSON: There are sort of a lot of other decisions that he's made over his, you know, first term. I know a lot of progressives were upset about the health care negotiations that he came for...

LYDEN: Because you wanted it to be single-payer.

JOHNSON: Single-payer or a public option. And that was immediately negotiated away. I know a lot of people have been raising concerns over foreign policy in terms of drone strikes, in terms of surveillance, wiretapping. A lot of those programs have been continued. He's quite hawkish when it comes to a lot of his foreign policy. And, you know, I think he has been painted as this radical leftist by the extreme right, and he really isn't. I mean, to me, at least, he's more of a center-right president than otherwise.

LYDEN: Would a center-right president have repealed the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law? Would he have campaigned and passed a historic health care reform legislation? Would a center-right president have espoused and passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act?

JOHNSON: I think one way you can compare this is with Democrats and Republicans, it's all relative. And I think the conservative right has been pulled so far right that anyone evenly remotely centrist seems extreme left. And so I think he is looking in progressive directions. But to be called a progressive or a liberal for that matter, I think, is a bridge too far.

LYDEN: Shaun Johnson, a professor who blogs for the Chalk Face. Some progressives do, however, feel more optimistic about President Obama. It seems like a new day with the election handily won and Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin moving to the Senate. But Molly Ball, a staff writer who covers national politics for The Atlantic says progressives are about to have their hopes dashed once again.

MOLLY BALL: It's truer now than it ever was that the math just hasn't really changed in Washington. The Congress is still constructed the way the Congress was constructed then. Democrats made incremental gains in the Senate and in the House, but they didn't change the basic math. And that means that these policy fights ahead are going to run up against exactly what they've run up against the last four years. Even if Obama is feeling newly liberated by his re-election, he's going to have to turn a lot of votes to make any of this possible.

And so, for example, climate change, people in the environmental community who lobby for these things, they don't even hope for climate change legislation out of this Congress. They have looked at the Republican House of Representatives, which, when it does anything on the environment, is trying to roll back the EPA or eliminate the EPA. And when they seek changes from Obama, they are seeking regulatory changes. They're seeking executive branch power to make changes. They don't even hope for a renewed push for climate change legislation for the most part.

LYDEN: Let's talk for the moment about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. They have been spared in this fiscal cliff deal,, but perhaps not for long. What do you see with those programs?

BALL: What we saw in the fiscal cliff negotiations was that the president was open to changes on Social Security and on Medicare. And this is a way in which liberals are already seeing it come true, that some of their priorities may not be as sacred as they hoped. Now, the changes did not end up getting made, in part because the deal ended up being so much smaller than the negotiations originally were for, but they were definitely on the table.

It was only at the very last minute those - that last day of negotiations between Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden that Social Security was taken off the table and the president had offered changes to Medicare as part of his original offer to John Boehner. So for liberals whose priorities are protecting those entitlements, I think they've got to be very nervous about what lies ahead in future negotiations.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. You know, when President Obama ran for office prior to his first term, much was made of his roots as a community organizer, and he wrote about that a lot in his own autobiography "The Audacity of Hope." He really comes off in that tone as a progressive thinker. Do you identify him that way?

BALL: That's a really interesting question. I think on the one hand, there's no question that he is a liberal. But on the other hand, you also see, even in his early writing, this strain of pragmatism. And part of what was so appealing about him originally back in 2008 was this bridge-building idea that he had and the speech he gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention about being inclusive and bringing everybody in.

Now, a lot of Republicans may not feel that he's done that in practice, but I think there's always been these dueling strains of Obama, on the one hand as a philosophical liberal, and on the other hand as someone who really seeks compromise. Some of his allies would argue to a fault that he tends to maybe give away the store because he's so interested in building bridges to the other side.

LYDEN: Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics for The Atlantic. Thanks very much for being here.

BALL: Thank you.

LYDEN: Bernie Sanders is one who knows about compromise. The independent senator from Vermont objected to the fiscal deal, but he voted for it anyway, saying it was better than the alternative. Sanders is cofounder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and he's the only Senate member. So I asked him, what does it mean to be a progressive?

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: By being a progressive is about, right now, is standing up and fighting for working families, fighting for low-income people, being prepared to take on big oil and big coal to save the planet in terms of global warming, standing up for women and gay folks who are under attack all of the time by an increasingly militant right wing. Those are some of the aspects of being a progressive.

LYDEN: By your own standards, by the convictions to which you've hewn, do you think that President Obama merits the term progressive? Is he progressive?

SANDERS: No. I think he's a pretty honest guy. And the president, as you may recall just a few weeks ago, said that if we were in 1980's, he would have been considered something like a moderate Republican. And I think he's kind of a centrist, somewhere in the middle of the Democratic Party. But, no, I don't think he is a progressive.

LYDEN: How would you say his leadership style has changed since he took office?

SANDERS: Well, I was very disappointed in terms of his unwillingness to be more aggressive in standing up to what has increasingly become a right-wing extremist Republican Party. And we needed the president to really stand up tall against these guys in budget negotiations and in other ways, and he really hasn't, to my mind, done that effectively.

On the other hand, I thought that the much maligned stimulus package was very, very important for Vermont and important for America. I think that the priorities of that legislation were exactly right, rebuilding our infrastructure, helping to transform our energy system, paying attention to children, paying attention to veterans. I thought more money should have gone into that, but I think he deserves more credit than he got.

LYDEN: Would you have any advice - given your own background experience, for the White House and the president on something like compromise when you have, right now, the House Speaker saying no more direct negotiations with the president, we'll see, no president rules alone - any suggestions for how...


LYDEN: ...he can hold to his ideals and negotiate at the same time?

SANDERS: If the president stands firm and says, you know what: I ain't going to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, I am going to ask corporations who are not paying any taxes to start paying their fair share, he will have the overwhelming majority of the American people behind him. And sooner or later, the Republicans will catch on that they are in danger of becoming a marginal fringe party, unless they get along with the program here and do what the American people want.

LYDEN: Can I gather that senators like you are going to be pressuring the president to do exactly that?

SANDERS: Oh, I think you can gather that absolutely.

LYDEN: Bernie Sanders is the independent senator from Vermont. Thank you very much for being with us.

SANDERS: Thank you.

LYDEN: Now back to Shaun Johnson, that progressive voter, blogger and teacher who wrote the column "Obama Lost My Vote." We wondered who he did wind up voting for in the last election.

JOHNSON: Ultimately, I did vote for the president. I think in the end, we have to be pragmatic when we go into the voting booth. And even though I'm heavily supportive of the Green Party's educational platform, ultimately, given the choices, I went for the president.

LYDEN: Yeah. But did you publish a comment that said, ultimately, Obama got my vote?

JOHNSON: I did not. And perhaps that's going to be a follow up.

LYDEN: And progressives are still looking for the president to follow up on the liberal agenda that he laid out in 2008.

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