The progressive community and the Obama administration are once again in a firefight, this one started by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. There has been and will be a huge amount of commentary on this in the blogosphere and the media in general over the next few days, and Gibbs' quote will go right up there with the infamous "left of the left" quote during health care, Rahm's infamous "f'ing retarded" quote (he apologized afterward to advocates for those with mental disabilities, but of course not to progressives), the locker room gloating "organized labor just flushed $10 million down the toilet" quote, and a variety of other random insults that progressives have to chew over.
Thankfully, Gibbs has released a statement pulling back from that interview, and I am assured by friends at the White House that this is just "Robert being in a bad mood", etc. Happy to hear it, and I am willing to give the White House the benefit of the doubt (which I know may not be very popular among many folks in progressiveland). I also am happy to give this Administration credit where credit is due, and they do actually deserve some.
Given the economic straits we are in, the stimulus was too small, and had too many tax cuts in it, but it is still the biggest jobs bill in American history, and the biggest investment in public goods (schools, teachers, roads, bridges, clean energy, firefighters, cops, broadband, etc.). The health care bill had big flaws, including the lack of a public option, but Obama succeeded at extending coverage to virtually everyone and reining in major insurance abuses (on pre-existing conditions, lifetime caps, etc.) when every other President before for a hundred years had failed.
The financial reform bill didn't break up the banks, but we won very significant victories in reining in the financial sector, and went the right direction on financial regulation instead of the wrong direction as we did in the last four presidents' tenures. The federal budgets Obama submitted have been the most progressive in many ways, at least since 1993, and maybe since the 1960s. We won a major victory on, and expansion of, the student loan program for college students. Tobacco is regulated by the FDA for the first time. The equal pay law got passed, S-CHIP got expanded, the hate crimes bill got signed, unneeded weapons systems got eliminated. And Obama has at least pushed for other big legislation on climate change, immigration reform, and more jobs programs, even if he didn't succeed at everything.
It hasn't all been perfect -- far from it -- but Obama deserves enormous credit for wading into these big fights, and for persevering on some of the toughest, like health care (where his chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel wanted him to back down and give up.) If I were in the Obama White House, I might be feeling a little irritable myself at the lack of credit I was getting.
Were you waiting for the "but"? Well, here it is.
But here's the thing, folks at the White House: your strategy for getting the credit you think you deserve sucks. It's not working, and bitching about the fact that people don't give you enough credit is not going to get them to give you more.
I may be wrong, I hope I am wrong, but as far as I can tell, the White House right now has very little in the way of strategy for reaching out to the progressive community. Beyond meeting regularly with some of the big DC groups (meetings that have been described to me by a White House ally as pretty much being "one way communication" from the White House to the groups), I know of no consistent high level outreach to the broad progressive community. My guess is that it's because they don't think they need to, that as Gibbs indicated, they don't feel they need the groups or the blogs or progressive media or the "progressive left", in Gibbs' delightful phrase, to reach progressive voters.
Maybe. But it's a pretty huge gamble. The Obama team forgets that once the primary was over in 2008, the folks in the blogosphere and all the progressive groups were pretty united on helping Obama win the election. A pretty sizable share of the 13 million people on the Obama e-mail list were also reading blogs, getting e-mails from MoveOn.org or phone/mail from unions and other groups. Everyone had the same goal of defeating McCain and other right-wing Republicans, and we were all reinforcing (for the most part) what the campaign was doing and saying.
That sense of teamwork is pretty well gone, blown apart not only because of some policy decisions many progressives disagreed with, and not just by the series of insulting comments I spelled out in the first paragraph, but by a serious lack of outreach as well. The result is that Obama gets a steady stream of criticism from Markos, Arianna, Rachel, and many of the rest of us, and when good things happen, they rarely get played up positively as well as they should. I think that is one of the big reasons why online giving has been fairly weak on the Obama list (a person with knowledge of the list told me that the fundraising trend off their email list was "extremely worrisome"), why volunteer recruitment has been down, and why Democratic voter enthusiasm in the polling as been so consistently weak (obviously the bad economy has a lot to do with that as well, but don't discount the bad relationship with progressive media and institutions).
Here's the thing that drives me most crazy, though: the only thing making the Obama White House take the huge gamble of not reaching out to the professional left is their own arrogance. Engaging the "professional left" would be easy to do if they cared about it at all, and had a strategy to do it. In the Clinton White House, that presidency of NAFTA, failed health care, the 1994 election fiasco, and "triangulation", the progressive community- the professional left as well as progressive voters- progressives never deserted Clinton. Through his two elections, special prosecutors, the Lewinsky mess and impeachment, the Democratic base stayed loyal to and enthusiastic about Bill Clinton (even when he didn't always deserve it). Why? Because Bill Clinton cared about having a good relationship with progressives, and because we had a strategy for working effectively with them. President Clinton frequently asked me about who was happy with us and who was disgruntled in the progressive world, and we made sure to bring in everyone in the latter category for meetings and social events at the White House. At the height of the NAFTA fight, we organized a dinner for labor leaders where the President hung out with them for a long, social evening, telling them in his remarks "I know we are in a fight right now, but I want you to know that my White House will always be your house too, that we always will be friends." We made sure progressives always had chances to have serious input into policy development. Whenever we had bad news to deliver to progressive groups on any issue big or small, we reached out to them before the announcement, talked about how to make the damage hurt less, and talked about what we could do to help them on other issues. And whenever there was good news, we made sure the folks who cared about it were part of the celebration.
Here's the other thing: other Democratic politicians in 2010 get the need to work effectively with progressives. I have had my share of disagreements with Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid, but they and their staff have never failed to work constructively and conscientiously with me and other progressives I know. This is politics 101 as far as I am concerned, but to my knowledge, this White House isn't engaging in much of it. I am on the board of many different progressives groups, and know a wide assortment of folks in the blogosphere, in organizations, in the progressive donor world, on Capitol Hill, and I rarely hear about any kind of high-level outreach of this sort going on. One other important point on all this: what worries me the most is that I am as insider-y as a person can get. I have known Rahm for 30 years, Axelrod and Plouffe for over 20. I have been a client of Jim Margolis, Anita Dunn, and Axelrod's firms. I was a co-founder of Strategy Group, the Chicago based firm that was one of the closest inner circle firms in the Obama Presidential campaign. I have worked in the White House, and I even worked on the Obama transition. I am one of the professional left (not at all the only one, by the way) who, in spite of my disappointments with some of the compromises made, ended up supporting, enthusiastically working for, and praising Obama on all those initiatives mentioned above. Now I know that some folks in the White House are mad at me and have shut me out because I have been critical at times of this White House, but I still have to think: if the relationship with the "professional left" is as shaky as it is, and someone like me is not being reached out to much or asked to help, what about all those bloggers and progressive media people and organizations who don't have much in the way of inside connections? It worries the hell out of me, and it ought to be worrying the White House.
Gibbs' statement has caused a flurry of damage control, just as all the other statements in paragraph one did. But it's not enough: this White House has to do a better job of working constructively, every single day, with progressives. The White House should be in genuine partnership with the progressive community. That doesn't mean agreeing on every issue, and it doesn't mean avoiding some frank conversations behind the scenes where voices get raised back and forth. But progressives, including the "professional left" would be a lot more loyal and enthusiastic, a lot more willing to give credit where credit is due, if they felt like the White House cared what they thought.
Our job as progressives is to never be satisfied, to always be impatient with the pace of change. Frederick Douglass, Alice Paul, Walter Reuther, Martin Luther King, Jr.- none of them were ever satisfied with the progress being made, and the Presidents they worked with were constantly aggravated at the pressure they received. But big changes got done when Presidents understood the importance of working effectively with them and the movements they represented. It is time for Obama (and his staff) to understand this and make the effort. Even when we are being irritating, even when you think we are being unfair, the White House needs to reach out their hand to progressives and work with us instead of venting about us to the media. FDR understood that and got re-elected by landslides with enthusiastic base support in the toughest of times. LBJ understood that in 1964, got re-elected in a landslide with progressives happily behind him, but then forgot it and let Vietnam break his party in the '68 election. Bill Clinton understood that, avoided a primary in tough political circumstances, and won re-election easily with a pumped up progressive community strongly behind him. I hope President Obama comes to understand that it is your base, including the professional left, that can sustain you in tough economic and political times, but that you need to reach out to them rather than complain about them.
Cross-posted at my home blog, OpenLeft.com, where you can read all of my other writing