PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Throughout this year’s three-day Netroots Nations conference — as progressive activists have cheered on Elizabeth Warren, held Occupy-style general assemblies and attended seminars on topics ranging from voter ID laws to “Love, Compassion and Outrageous Forms of Activism” — present just below the surface of the discussion has been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with President Obama.
On Saturday night, that discontent came to the fore.
A series of liberal favorites, culminating with former Obama environmental adviser Van Jones, took to the stage at the Rhode Island Convention Center to rally the Democratic base — and also to make clear that nearly four years after his election, Obama has not lived up to their expectations.
“He stands up for Trayvon; he stands up for gay marriage; we like him,” Jones said of Obama in the keynote speech of the evening. “But we’re not in love with him.”
“We went from having a crush to feeling crushed,” he added, as the convention hall — which at about 1,500 activists was about half-full compared with where it stood during Warren’s address on Friday — responded with cheers and applause.
Jones in September 2009 resigned from his “green czar” post amid pressure from the right over his past activism, including the appearance of his name on a petition for a group suggesting the Bush administration was responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Jones has maintained that he never signed the petition and does not agree with the statement.
In the years since, he has remained popular among the left and has stayed active in politics as a fellow at the Center for American Progress and as founder of the Rebuild the Dream campaign.
His Saturday night remarks, which came on the heels of Democrats’ loss in the Wisconsin recall election and as Obama has stumbled on the campaign trial, underscored the challenge the president faces in energizing his base in November.
“We have a quandary,” Jones said Saturday night. “We know we’re supposed to be fired up, and we know we’re supposed to be ready to go. But we’re pissed off! We’re mad. And we have reason to be. ... Somebody said, ‘I feel like I’m caught between Barack and a hard place.’”
Jones urged the progressive base to be “twice as committed and twice as passionate as we were in 2008,” calling on them to both work to reelect Obama and “hold the president accountable to progressive values.”
“We have to have a president who’s willing to be moved, and you have to have a movement that’s willing to do the moving. And we have not had both at the same time,” he said.
But even as he called on activists to rally behind the president, Jones backed up his argument with a list not of reasons to be enthusiastic about Obama, but rather of reasons to oppose Republicans, including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
“The last election was a hope election,” he said. “This one might be a fear election. They’re scared of us. We should be terrified of them. When they get power they use it to decimate us. Look at what they did in the state houses. They didn’t run on destroying the unions. ... They decapitated our unions.”
The argument was one reminiscent of the rationale Republicans have used in recent months in rallying the base behind Romney, a nominee who for many conservatives was not the top choice in the GOP race.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who addressed the Netroots conference ahead of Jones Saturday night, also acknowledged the discontent with Obama among the Democratic base.
“We’ve had our fights with the president, and I’ve been happy to have those fights for three years,” he said. “But the fourth year, we’re on the same team ... because the alternative is unthinkable.”
And like Jones, Dean set his sights on the GOP, particularly on “the hate wing of the Republican Party,” which he described as “anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-woman.”
“Fortunately, the tea party and the hate wing is a dying phenomenon, because as our young people get older and older, they don’t want to see this kind of politics anymore,” Dean said. “Sooner or later, and I think it’s going to be sooner, the Republican Party is going to understand you can’t take a great country and make it better by hating some of its citizens.”
Also among the speakers Saturday night was NAACP President Ben Jealous, who told the crowd that his organization “is committed to being a good ally, and I‘m here to say thank you to all of you.”
While much of the discontent with Obama was linked to his decision not to campaign in Wisconsin, not all at Netroots blamed the president.
Jones argued that national Democrats — including the activists in the hall — had not been as involved as they ought to have been in the Wisconsin recall effort, which saw Democrat Tom Barrett fall to Gov. Scott Walker (R) by a seven-percentage point margin.
“None of us showed up in large numbers,” Jones said of the recall. “We saw it; we observed it; we munched the popcorn, but we didn’t jump into the screen. And if we didn’t like the way we felt waking up in June with that outcome in that one state, then it gives us a sense of how we might feel in November if we let the same thing go down in the swing states.”
He added that “there’s something wrong with a movement if we spend more time and energy mourning the loss than we spend time and energy securing the win. We need to take accountability as a national movement.”
“A Gilas Girl,” a 52-year-old blogger and quality improvement manager from Alexandria, Va., who declined to give her name, argued that it “would have been counterproductive” for Obama to go to Wisconsin because then the race would have become all about the president.
“Everybody in this room understands that it’s about more than Obama,” she said.
Gina Fesmire, a 53-year-old graphic designer from Raleigh, N.C., agreed. This week’s Netroots Nation conference was her fifth, and she said that she was pleased that Obama addressed the conference, even if it was just via video.
“It felt good that he sat down and spoke with us,” she said. Her husband, Bob, said that he agreed but that he thought the video was just “par for the course.”
The one part of Jones’s message that Gina Fesmire said she disagreed with was the notion that progressives are dispirited in the wake of their Wisconsin loss.
“We haven’t been sniffling in our beers,” she said. “We’ve been drinking our beers and saying, ‘Let’s go.’”