Netroots Nation: Obama and the Liberals

One of the things that most struck me at the Netroots Nation conference last week was how surprisingly little of a presence the Obama reelection campaign had there. (Michelle Goldberg noticed this too.) Organizing for America sponsored a party and sent some staffers, but nothing made them stand out from all the other attendees; they had a booth in the exhibition hall, but it was just one booth among many. There were candidates and officeholders from across the country who spoke and participated in panels, but there were no Obama administration officials. If you didn't already know it was a presidential election year, you probably wouldn't have seen anything there to inform you otherwise.

I thought that the administration was avoiding the conference entirely, but President Obama did deliver a videotaped message (see the part 2 video, skip to 14:30) that was played on the last day, just before Van Jones' closing keynote speech. This wasn't mentioned anywhere in the official Netroots Nation schedule app or on the website, which I find inexplicable. Does it really make sense to treat the President of the United States like a surprise guest on a talk show?

But for all that, President Obama's video was very brief, just a few minutes, and was basically a rehash of his usual stump speech with only minimal adjustments. For an audience as well-informed and politically sophisticated as this one, it felt shallow and insubstantial. The whole tone and tenor of the video, I thought, was like someone opening a Christmas gift they didn't want and trying to be gracious to the giver, what Garfunkel & Oates dubbed "present face".

And the audience's reaction was equally tepid, just a light smattering of applause. This was in sharp contrast to the multiple standing ovations that some of the other speakers got. (Elizabeth Warren, Howard Dean, Benjamin Jealous and Van Jones, among others, were all crowd favorites.) When it comes to Obama and progressives, it's clear that there's a lack of enthusiasm on both sides.

I don't find it surprising that the attendees have cooled toward the president. Just to be clear, I don't blame him for running into a buzzsaw of Republican obstruction. It's been clear since the first day of the Obama presidency that the Republican strategy is to stonewall him at every turn, to block everything he tries to do, so they can run against him by cynically claiming he hasn't accomplished anything. They've even started opposing what were originally their own ideas, like the Dream Act and the Affordable Care Act's private-insurance mandate, as soon as Democrats sign on to them. Even working together with Democrats on nuclear non-proliferation is now enough to get Republicans branded as spineless compromisers and defeated in primaries.

No, I don't blame President Obama for any of that. What I do blame him for is acting as if he were oblivious to what the Republicans are doing: seeking their approval when he didn't need it, preemptively compromising in exchange for nothing, and wasting time and effort trying to negotiate with them when it's obvious that they'll slap his hand away every time. I don't believe for an instant that he doesn't know what they're doing, but I don't understand why he's not doing more to point it out. In a depressed economy, the charge that Republicans are blocking bills that could help people for their own political benefit ought to be brutally effective. Yet Obama is choosing not to make them pay a price for their obstructionism. For progressives like me, people who want leaders to stand and fight for their values, this is hugely dispiriting.

Whatever his reasons, it seems clear that Obama recognizes our enthusiasm for him has dimmed, and he's largely given up on seeking progressive support. I can only assume he's concluded that if we're not already supporting his reelection by now, we're not going to, and there's no point investing any more effort in wooing us. What I don't know is who he thinks is going to support him. Who will be the boots on the ground for his reelection campaign, if not the most committed members of his own party? The more I contemplate his political strategy, the more inexplicable I find it.

But despite this disappointment, the last day of the conference was largely redeemed by Van Jones. I only knew vaguely who he was before Netroots Nation, but then he took the stage to deliver the closing speech, and it was a barn-burner. (See the part 2 video, skip to 51:30.) He gave the speech I wished Obama had given: acknowledging progressive disappointment, but emphasizing exactly what the Republicans stand for and what's at stake if we don't work to defeat them: the permanent division of the country into a handful of ultra-rich and a huge permanent underclass, the shredding of the social safety net, the rolling back of decades of progress. In a memorable analogy, he compared Republicans to a person at a pool who's trying to stop the lifeguard from saving a drowning person, in the hope that the lifeguard will be fired so that they can take over his job.

Still, however inspiring or impassioned the speech was, it will never reach as many people as the President could have. I wish I could say that I was optimistic about the November elections, but lately I find I'm uncertain at best. In spite of all the other opposition lined up against progressives, I think that Democratic politicians are more often than not their own worst enemies.

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