Obama and the wary left

Despite policy pullbacks and some appointments, most liberals are happy.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Pragmatic centrist? President-elect Barack Obama, here at a news conference in Chicago last week, is adjusting to political circumstances.

It was entirely predictable: Barack Obama would disappoint the liberal base of his party. At his moment of victory on Nov. 4, expectations for the president-elect were sky-high. He had campaigned, after all, on an open-ended promise of change and some clear, sharp turns on policy, such as a pullout from Iraq and tax increases on the wealthiest Americans.

Now, the promise of immediate action on Iraq is softening, and the tax hikes might wait. He’s also pulled back from his pledge to impose a windfall profits tax on oil companies. Some of his appointments have sparked chagrin in the liberal blogosphere. He kept President Bush’s Defense secretary, Robert Gates, and has nominated Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a onetime supporter of the Iraq war, to be his secretary of State.

Alumni from the centrist administration of Bill Clinton figure prominently in Mr. Obama’s Cabinet and White House staff, including economic adviser Larry Summers and his intended Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner. Both were part of the team during the Clinton years that resisted regulation of financial instruments that proved destructive to Wall Street.

But in the grand scheme of things, with more than a month to go before Inauguration Day, Obama is far from losing faith with his base. A Gallup poll shows that Obama still enjoys the confidence of the vast majority of self-identified liberals – 84 percent – even after announcing a national security team whose most liberal member, Susan Rice, is the nominee for UN ambassador, not a top policymaking position. In late November, before the team was announced, Obama was at 91 percent with liberals, according to Gallup.

Roger Hickey, co-director of the progressive Campaign for America’s Future, is well aware of the angst pouring forth on liberal websites – including his own organization’s blog – but he is willing to cut the president-elect some slack.

“I think that Obama’s right on target, and he is talking very boldly both on foreign policy and domestic economics and global economics,” Mr. Hickey says.

“They’re dealing with economic realities that no president has dealt with since [Franklin] Roosevelt,” he adds. “So while many of us might have quibbled with some Clinton retreads being appointed to high economic posts, it’s very obvious that everybody in the new team understands that there’s an economic crisis, and that the policies that might have worked in the Clinton era have to be thrown out the window.”

There may also be a bit of Kabuki theater in progressives’ complaints about some of Obama’s earliest moves. Liberal thought leaders are letting him know they’re paying attention, and that further down the road, if Obama is perceived as having strayed too far to the right, he could lose some of his most active support. Top Obama aides are themselves calling on their progressive ground troops to make noise, in anticipation of clashes with the right when the Obama administration is in power and pushing its agenda.

In Washington recently, two of Obama’s top advisers addressed a convention of community organizers, saying they welcomed input on issues from the grass roots.

“We can count on you to advise us,” said Valerie Jarrett, a longtime Obama confidante who will advise him from the White House. “You know better than anybody else what your community needs in order to improve your neighborhood.”

Though liberal bloggers gave a thumbs down to some of Obama’s top appointments, Ms. Jarrett was not one of them. In fact, the liberal In These Times magazine floated her name back in September as a potential secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Liberal bloggers may have been decisive in the quashing of the nomination of a potential Central Intelligence Agency director, John Brennan, an adviser to Obama on intelligence matters. Mr. Brennan wrote a letter to Obama on Nov. 25 withdrawing his name from consideration, but only after the liberal blogosphere lit up with concern over the fact that he had worked at the CIA during a period when coercive interrogation techniques were being used.

Still, liberal outrage last month over Senate Democrats’ decision to allow Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat, to keep his committee chairmanships – despite his unstinting opposition to Obama during the presidential campaign – has blown over with nary a trace. Obama’s team has discovered that a certain amount of venting on the Web can be harmless. When Obama decided last June to support a controversial surveillance law opposed by the Democratic base, the liberal blogosphere caught fire – but Obama ultimately kept its support.

In all likelihood, Obama’s dance with his liberal base has only just begun. Since the Democrats failed to win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the new president will need to woo Republicans to pass controversial legislation. That could alter the details of some initiatives.

“I think you’re going to see a heavy push to incorporate Republican views and Republican votes out of the box, because he doesn’t want to be in a position of trying to shove legislation down the Republicans’ throats,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “There will be grumbling among the liberals.”

Progressive leaders expect Obama to compromise. But they do have a bottom line: “He’s got to deliver,” says Hickey. “He can’t compromise what he promised in the election too much.”

Among activists at the convention of 2,500 community organizers, though, there was hardly a discouraging word about how Obama has maneuvered so far. In fact, the mood in the hall was downright euphoric. After all, he used to be one of them. The idea of Obama repositioning himself somewhat toward the center didn’t faze Marion Ervin of Syracuse, N.Y., an activist on health, youth, and education issues.

“The only place to be is in the center,” said Mr. Ervin. “He’s being smart.”

Wonda Williams of Pittsburgh was aglow with good feeling toward the new Obama team.

“They all have good views and issues,” said Ms. Williams, who works with homeless women and children. “I’m just getting ready for there to be a change. Wow.”

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