Robert Gibbs mocks the 'professional left': Is it war?

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the 'professional left' is ungrateful for all President Obama and the Congress have achieved. Alienating your base ahead of a tough midterm election might not be the best idea, though.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responds to a question during a briefing at the White House in Washington July 26.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, might be about ready for his summer vacation.

First, there was his statement of the obvious – about how Democrats could lose control of the House in November – that infuriated Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Now he’s under fire for making a crack about the “professional left,” and how ungrateful it is for all the things President Obama has accomplished.

The idea is that liberals feel Mr. Obama is too willing to compromise and won’t stand up for progressive ideals.

The choicest comments, made in an interview with Sam Youngman of The Hill newspaper, go like this: “I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” Mr. Gibbs said. “I mean, it’s crazy.”

Per Mr. Youngman: “The press secretary dismissed the ‘professional left’ in terms very similar to those used by their opponents on the ideological right, saying, ‘They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.’ ”

More Youngman: “Of those who complain that Obama caved to centrists on issues such as health-care reform, Gibbs said: ‘They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.’”


Soon after the story’s publication, Gibbs issued an apology to some leading blogs, including the liberal Huffington Post, Greg Sargent of The Washington Post, and Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic:

"I watch too much cable, I admit. Day after day, it gets frustrating. Yesterday I watched as someone called legislation to prevent teacher layoffs a bailout – but I know that's not a view held by many, nor were the views I was frustrated about.

"So what I may have said inartfully, let me say this way – since coming to office in January 2009, this White House and Congress have worked tirelessly to put our country back on the right path. Most importantly, to dig our way out of a huge recession and build an economy that makes America more competitive and our middle class more secure. Some are frustrated that the change we want hasn't come fast enough for many Americans. That we all understand.”

Gibbs then enumerated the accomplishments of the Obama administration in its first 17 months, including health-care reform, financial reform, the recovery act, and student loan reform, and promised continuing efforts to achieve its goals.

“So,” he concluded, “we should all, me included, stop fighting each other and arguing about our differences on certain policies, and instead work together to make sure everyone knows what is at stake because we've come too far to turn back now."

Gibbs’s statement did not prevent White House reporters from bringing up the interview numerous times in Tuesday’s briefing – conducted, notably, by Gibbs’s deputy, Bill Burton. Anticipating conspiracy theories, Mr. Burton offered that Gibbs is “sitting upstairs, probably watching me talk to you, with a sore throat and the sniffles.”

So what about that White House frustration with the “professional left?” Burton was asked.

Gibbs’s deputy didn’t deny the frustration. But he suggested that the whole thing is being way overblown.

“I think what Gibbs was doing was having one conversation with one reporter, and in response to some questions about frustration, just answered honestly,” Burton said. “I don't think that it should be read as anything more than that.”

As for the frustration itself, Burton was asked if by attacking the “professional left” – presumably, meaning the pundits, paid activists, and heads of liberal institutions – the White House doesn’t risk alienating Obama’s grass-roots supporters who worked hard to get him elected and who Democrats are counting on to save their bacon in the midterm elections.

Burton tried to put the whole flap in perspective, and also tried to broaden it into frustration over press coverage.

“Every single person in this building, including the one who lives here, at times can be frustrated with the way some of the things are covered here,” Burton said.

“But it's a pretty – it's pretty minor compared to the hard work that we're actually doing ... and the commitment we have here at this White House, starting with the president of the United States, to stay focused on the things that are important to this country, namely keeping the American people safe and building this economy.”

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