Some progressive critics of President Barack Obama claim the White House’s recent chiding of disenchanted liberals is not about motivating them to vote in November – it's a cynical attempt to scapegoat them for the losses Democrats are expected to suffer in the midterm elections.
The already palpable tensions between Obama and the liberal base rose after the president told Rolling Stone in an interview published online Tuesday that it’s "irresponsible" and "inexcusable" for disillusioned liberals to stay home on Nov. 2 rather than get out and vote for Democratic candidates.
"The idea that we've got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible," Obama said, depicting the high stakes election as a choice between a flawed but forward-thinking Democratic Party and a backwards GOP "that has moved to the right of George Bush."
The comments sparked retorts from liberal journalists and bloggers such as the Washington Post's Greg Sargent and the Washington Monthly's Steve Benen. Even the ones who sympathize with the White House's concerns seemed to agree that railing against the most passionate elements of the progressive base is a poor strategy to boost Democratic enthusiasm.
But Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher and Salon's Glenn Greenwald, arguably Obama's two most relentless high-profile liberal critics, saw a hidden ulterior motive. Obama's comments – and Vice President Joe Biden asking progressives to "stop whining" – they argued, were mainly about implanting into the discourse the narrative the party’s losses are the fault of fastidious liberals rather than its record.
"[A]ll of this 'hippie punching' isn’t about turning out voters. To do that, as Obama well knows, you have to inspire them,” Hamsher opined on her blog. "…No, this isn’t about [get out the vote]. It’s about setting up a narrative for who will take the blame for a disastrous election. And once again, the White House doesn’t care if they make matters worse in order to deflect responsibility from Obama."
Greenwald added: "By incessantly complaining now about the 'irresponsible' 'whiners' who aren't sufficiently grateful to the Obama White House, they seem to be setting up in advance a nice excuse for Democratic defeat in November: it wasn't anything we did to cause this; it was the fault of those whiny, unrealistic irresponsible liberals who didn't cheerlead loudly enough."
Liberals have, since early last year, been irritated with what they perceive as the White House and Democrats' tendency to prioritize bipartisanship over results and to fold quickly on tough battles. Critics like Greenwald and the ACLU also argue that on civil liberties issues, the Obama administration – with the help of Congressional Democrats – has been as bad or worse than the Bush administration.
The White House believes its liberal critics don’t appreciate how difficult it is to advance a progressive agenda in Washington. Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and press secretary Robert Gibbs have – privately or publicly – blasted elements of the base they view as impatient and irrational, if not worse.
Gibbs ignited a firestorm last month in an interview with The Hill, when he assailed the "professional left" as "crazy" and quipped that progressives who compare Obama to George W. Bush "ought to be drug tested." The remarks brought wide attention to the rift between Democrats and their liberal base.
Democrats, after seizing large majorities in Congress in 2008, now face the prospect of dramatic losses in this year's midterms, according to most polls, including a good chance of losing the House of Representatives. The reason for those losses will be disputed, but many in the traditional media are already claiming it's the fault of overzealous liberals.