Dana Milbank
Opinion writer June 24, 2011

It was another day of President Obama-bashing at the Capitol.

“I’m profoundly disappointed,” one lawmaker said at a news conference Thursday morning.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“A disappointment to say the least,” said another.

“Wrong decision,” said a third.

“His proposal failed.”

“It is unjustifiable.”

“Quite simply unconscionable.”

What was remarkable about this particular gripe session, however, was that the speakers were all Democrats.

As they stood on the podium in a House television studio and spoke into the cameras, these liberal members of Congress were complaining about the slow pace of Obama’s pullout from Afghanistan. But they could just as well have been talking about a score of other White House actions that have infuriated them:

l Extending Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

l Keeping the Guantanamo Bay prison open.

l Declining to support a larger economic stimulus, or a second one.

l Surrendering on the public option.

l Foot-dragging on climate change.

l Resisting calls to support gay marriage.

l Surging troops into Afghanistan and removing them too slowly.

l Offering up too many budget cuts in negotiations.

l Hesitating to nominate Elizabeth Warren to head the new financial regulatory agency.

On Friday, House Democrats delivered a symbolic but unusually public rebuke of the president. Seventy of them voted against authorizing the military action in Libya, and 36 of them voted to cut off funding for the operation.

“America can no longer be asked to be the one that does everything, everywhere, every time,” Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) shouted on the House floor. Before the vote, House Democratic leaders made no effort to keep rank-and-file Democrats from opposing Obama on Libya.

There have been worse rifts between a president and his party, such as Bill Clinton’s 1996 signing of the Republican welfare-reform bill. Democrats are less angry with Obama now than when he struck a deal with Republicans preserving the Bush tax cuts. But the breadth of Obama’s fights with his political base is striking.

Compounding the feeling of betrayal is the progressive lawmakers’ belief that Obama was one of them – not some centrist, Clintonian character. I’m sympathetic to Obama’s instincts to keep to the political center, but the routine spurning of his political base does seem extravagant.

On top of that, Obama has little to show for his intramural squabbles. Clinton’s heresies earned him the support of independents (the expanding economy certainly helped), but, according to the latest Bloomberg poll, only 23 percent of independent likely voters support Obama’s reelection, while 36 percent say they will definitely back another candidate.

Similar statistics have already led Karl Rove to write one of the first obituaries of the Obama presidency, arguing, in a Wall Street Journal column titled “Why Obama is Likely to Lose in 2012,” that “a disappointed left could deprive him of the volunteers so critical to his success in 2008.”

Rove’s exuberance may be premature: For all of Obama’s troubles with his base, progressives have no thought of launching a primary challenge to him the way Ted Kennedy did to Jimmy Carter. “There’s a lot of dissatisfaction, but what can you do?” one progressive Democratic congressman told me. “If somebody challenges him, you just lose to the Republicans and it gets 20 times worse.”

All progressives can do, then, is squawk – which, as it happens, is something they do quite well, as demonstrated by the five Democratic lawmakers at Thursday morning’s news conference.

“It was a moment for bold decision-making,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.).

“Instead the course was to perpetuate a war that is bankrupting us morally and fiscally.”

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) accused the administration of “pouring billions of dollars into an intractable mess.”

Similar arguments sounded on both sides of the Capitol. At a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.) protested to Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen: “I really remain unconvinced.” At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, advised Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that “brave Americans are risking their lives as we sit here and tell them, ‘you can’t win this, but perform your mission.’ ”

I pressed the liberal legislators on whether there was anything they could do about it other than complain.

“Jerry’s running for president,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) offered.

“Yeah, right,” Nadler grumbled. But the lawmaker did vow that “you’re going to hear a lot more” such protests, and attempts to cut off war funding. “I think we are approaching a breaking point,” he said.

danamilbank@washpost.com