In recent weeks, President Barack Obama has seen a wide variety of his policy proposals – foreign and domestic – lambasted on television ads, mocked at rallies and challenged in petitions.
None of that seems surprising until you know this: Each one of those campaigns was organized by members of his own party.
Obama has long since grown accustomed to relentless criticism from Republicans, with this week’s showdown over the budget and health care just the latest example. But now, nearly a year into his second term, he faces surprisingly fierce opposition from Democrats who are more willing than ever to challenge him in public.
Liberal members of his party have fought him on his vast government spying programs, his desire to conduct a military strike on Syria and his consideration of Larry Summers to head the Federal Reserve. That opposition led Obama to reverse course on two policies, and reconsider the third.
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Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group, said that her members feel some “anguish” opposing a president they worked hard to elect but that they are proud of their impact on major public policy issues. “It’s a reminder of how strong the progressive base is,” she said.
The White House downplays any rift within the party, but Obama himself acknowledged some discontent just last week when he pledged to work with Republicans on the budget impasse that was threatening to shut down the federal government.
“I have said in the past, and I will continue to say, that I’m willing to make a whole bunch of tough decisions – ones that may not be entirely welcomed by my own party,” he said Friday at the White House.
Obama stitched together a growing progressive coalition searching for a change to politics as usual to win in 2008 and again in 2012.
In his first term, liberal Democrats praised Obama’s push for a federal health care law, dubbed Obamacare, his endorsement of same-sex marriage – even if it came after some prodding by Vice President Joe Biden – and his decision to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There were disagreements over the failure to implement clean air regulations and the use of unmanned drones to kill suspected terrorists abroad, but it wasn’t until the end of last year that Obama’s relationship with the liberal base took a distinct turn. Angry lawmakers, progressive groups and unions complained bitterly about his willingness to modify entitlement programs, including Social Security, and allow drastic cuts as he engaged in fiscal negotiations with Republicans. Some protested outside the White House.
Then, a fresh set of troubles erupted after his second inauguration.
Some of his strongest allies expressed outrage after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret documents showing the administration had broken privacy rules thousands of times a year while collecting massive amounts of telephone and email records. More than 150 Democratic lawmakers sent Obama a letter questioning the programs, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the news “extremely disturbing.”
Months later, Obama asked Congress to authorize an unpopular military strike on Syria, leading a coalition of progressive organizations, including CREDO Action, Progressive Change Campaign Committee and MoveOn.org, to organize candlelight vigils, a national day of action, even a TV ad campaign. Just as Obama was about to suffer an embarrassing defeat in Congress, in part because of Democrats, he asked lawmakers to postpone the vote to explore a last-minute Russian diplomatic proposal. “Public pressure worked,” the Progressive Change Campaign Committee proclaimed.
Most recently, Obama confidant Summers withdrew himself from consideration as Fed chairman after some Democrats expressed concern about his abrasive style and past role in financial deregulation. At least four Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee had voiced opposition.
“There’s no question there’s been greater resistance,” said Robert Borosage, president of the liberal group Campaign for America’s Future.
Obama is not alone. Other presidents have faced trouble with members of their own party in their second term.
Bill Clinton faced opposition from Democrats on the North American Free Trade Agreement and welfare changes. George W. Bush faced opposition from Republicans on new spending, including the Medicaid Part D drug benefit and the bailout of financial institutions during the economic downturn.
That change occurs, in part, because second-term presidents have run their final race, leaving the base less invested in them and looking toward the next election. In Obama’s case, liberal Democrats also were initially enthralled to elect anyone who stood in sharp contrast to Bush, but that enthusiasm eventually waned as the years went by and they realized Obama was not going to change politics as usual in many instances.
Obama’s approval rating among Democrats has fallen 13 points, to 78 percent, since December, 6 points below the average for his presidency, according to a new Gallup survey.
Support from liberal Democrats, disappointed that Obama has so far failed on legislation to curb gun violence and a rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws, dropped 10 points to 85.
“Loss of support from a president’s core supporters is an ominous sign, as they are typically the last group to abandon the president when things go sour,” Gallup said in an analysis of the poll.
The White House denies permanent damage to Obama’s relationship with any faction of the party, saying he has strong backing on major issues, including health care and Wall Street regulation, and that recent events must be taken individually.
Mo Elleithee, communications director at the Democratic National Committee, says debate will always be present but that the party is unified, especially compared to Republicans, who are split on the way forward this week on the budget. “This is a party united and unified behind the president,” he said.
But Democratic lawmakers gearing up to run for re-election next year in the House and Senate, where Republicans hope to win back control, may not find a benefit in embracing Obama publicly in districts where some of his recent policies remain unpopular.
Kevin Madden, a Republican consultant who used to work for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said Obama has been asking Democrats to support tough policy issues – gun legislation and Syria – after years of neglecting lawmakers and their staffs on Capitol Hill.
“He never really built the relationships that he needs in order to get things done,” he said. “There’s been a lack of effort there. It really hinders him.”