President Obama Loses His Base: He Just Ran Out of Slack

The media was quick to declare the Obama honeymoon over this summer. Yet supporters exhilarated by Barack Obama's stunning win in November 2008 were still willing to cut him a lot of slack. That slack just ran out.

The simplest, most comprehensive health insurance reform -- single payer -- was off the table before the legislative effort on the matter even started. It was replaced with an amorphous "public option." David Sirota and others like-minded called this a violation of negotiating 101: compromise comes at the end of the process, not at the beginning.

Now the campaign to enact substantive health care reform has foundered on Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). And on Obama's refusal to bust heads. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel instructed Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) to cut a deal with Lieberman for his vote, even if it meant jettisoning Medicare expansion and a public option -- along with cost controls, lifetime benefit caps and drug re-importation. Reid did. So much for the Chicago-style politics Fox News warned about.

All year, progressive health care reform advocates have tried to remain calm as the House and Senate bills got increasingly watered down. "Don't freak out," they told each other.

With each new development, lawmakers said, "Trust us." This continued to be the case as the bills got weaker and weaker. That phrase can be expected to be heard once again as the House and Senate bills go to conference.

In September, a rumor perpetuated by Organizing for America maintained that the White House was working secretly on its own bill to spring in mid October when opponents had spent themselves pushing back against the House and Senate versions. That, obviously, never surfaced.

Entertaining the notion of a secret bill was more wishful thinking from the President's supporters. They were trying to keep the faith, while choking on the feeling that they were being sold out with no public option included in the final bill. Glenn Greenwald argued, that was the plan all along and then quoted Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) saying, "This bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place."

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs criticized Howard Dean for suggesting to kill the Senate bill.

Why did the White House go after a former governor, yet never call out sitting senators Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) for their incessant obstruction?

Matt Taibbi's headline-grabbing takedown of Goldman Sachs, "Inside The Great American Bubble Machine" in the July 2009 issue of Rolling Stone detailed the extent to which Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street investment banks were responsible for the Great Recession. Many Goldman veterans on the Obama economic team, Taibbi warned, were charged with repairing the damage to which they themselves had created.

Still, Obama's base told themselves the boss had it under control.

But Taibbi's expose this month, "Obama's Big Sellout" delivered the coup de grâce to any remaining credibility the White House had as agents of financial reform. Immediately after the election, the economists who helped craft the campaign's populist economic message were sent to bureaucratic "Siberia." Taibbi listed a roster of Rubinites (as in former Clinton Treasury Secretary, Bob Rubin) and Citigroup bankers whose "balanced budgets, free trade and financial deregulation" philosophy is behind the administration's economic policy. The financial reform bill passed in the House reflects the same tepid regulatory impulses, as does the Senate's health care proposal. The Federal Reserve will be audited, but "cram-down" and the effort to reinstate Glass-Steagall both failed. Public Citizen declared, "The bill does very little to address industry structure... The biggest banks are now bigger than they were before the crisis."

Even as Democrats celebrated the passage of financial reform in the House, Obama's state-level organizers braced for fallout from the Taibbi article among supporters .

Obama's base also expected a radical break from Bush-era policies deployed in prosecuting the "war on terror." But no court has yet ruled on the legality of treatment former prisoners allege constituted torture. The Obama Justice Department "has worked tirelessly to shutter or pre-empt torture litigation," lawsuits brought by former detainees who allege they were tortured while in U.S. custody under Bush, says Slate's Dahlia Lithwick. "To be clear," Lithwick writes, "it's not that torture victims are losing these trials. They can't even find their way into a courtroom. And, time after time, it's the Obama administration barring the door." In a conference call with reporters, Jameel Jaffer, head of the ACLU's National Security Project, noted that while "the Bush administration constructed a legal framework for torture, the Obama administration is constructing a legal framework for impunity."

Some Obama supporters have begun reacting to his fundraising e-mails with skepticism bordering on disgust. Their patience has worn as thin as promises that "we will not back down" on health care reform. On December 16, after the White House had caved to Joe Lieberman's demands on the Senate health care bill, caller after caller to progressive talk radio programs expressed outrage. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 47 percent consider his health care plan a bad idea, and only 32 percent favor it. NBC's Chuck Todd wrote on Twitter: "Most of the movement on the 'bad idea' comes from some of the president's core support groups, folks upset about lost public option." Radio host and author Thom Hartmann suggested, "Put this healthcare bill where the sun don't shine." Blogger Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo filed a post entitled "Goodbye, Cruel World!" to respond to the flood of e-mails TPM had received from angry progressives seeking "'walk me back from the ledge' services." An open letter to the president posted on Daily Kos from a self-described "former Obamabot" expressed deep regret at having "been bamboozled, hoodwinked. Sold a shiny bill of goods."

Obama had best start listening. Of all people, he should know that one of the worst things you can do with campaign volunteers is waste their precious time. Because they won't come back.

(Cross-posted from Campaign for America's Future.)