Washington Sketch: Liberals Are Taken Aback by Obama's Take-Back of America

"It's going to be because of you that we take our country back," Barack Obama told progressives in June 2007.
"It's going to be because of you that we take our country back," Barack Obama told progressives in June 2007. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Thursday, June 4, 2009

President Obama is just killing the progressive movement.

For the past few years, liberal activists have gathered in Washington each spring for the Take Back America conference, where speaker after speaker -- Obama sometimes among them -- would give rollicking denunciations of the Bush administration before packed rooms of partisans.

But now that Obama has actually taken back America, the activists at this year's gathering feel a bit like the dog that finally caught up with the car. Organizers changed the name from Take Back America to America's Future Now, but that didn't prevent a sharp decline in participation.

At sparsely attended sessions this week at the Omni Shoreham, the progressive leaders debated whether they should shift their efforts to defending Obama, or fighting him when he strays from liberal doctrine. "It was easy taking back America," Robert Borosage, the conference organizer, told about 250 of the faithful at yesterday's closing luncheon. "Now we have to remake it. . . . That's the hard work."

Apparently so. Speakers at the closing session exhorted the liberals to take back America -- from Obama. "The president of the most powerful country in the world is doing all right, but there are a lot of people in this country who are not doing all right," writer Naomi Klein told the crowd. "Obama is making us stupid," she added. "Love can make you stupid."

And Leo Gerard, head of the United Steelworkers, warned that if his fellow activists don't "seize the opportunity to lead with our progressive ideas," then "Rahm Emanuel will lead." And while "Rahm has the president's back," the union leader said of Obama's chief of staff, "I don't think he has our back."

But many in the audience had warmer feelings toward the Obama administration. A straw poll taken by pollster Stan Greenberg found that 90 percent of those in attendance approve of the job the president is doing, and that they have no consensus about whether to help Obama or fight him.

That ambivalence could account for the lethargy at this year's conference; as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh know, it's more fun to be an opposition bomb-thrower than a palace guard. "This place was more high-energy last year," said Roger Hickey, who co-directs the Campaign for America's Future with Borosage. "Last year people were jazzed up. . . . Now we're getting into the sausage making of legislation."

Hickey estimates attendance dropped from 2,500 last year to 1,500 this year, and even that may overstate things. At yesterday morning's four concurrent "issue briefings," 585 chairs were set out. Only 213 of them were occupied, including just 15 for the session on global warming. "Radio row" was quiet, the "TV Terrace" was empty, and two people sat typing on "Blogger Boulevard."

"It's been much less busy this year," said a guy in the nearly empty exhibit hall who was handing out stickers from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force saying "Power is Sexy." Nobody was shopping at the book kiosk in the middle of the room, where the titles leaned toward the battles of the George W. Bush years: "The Constitution in Crisis . . . a Blueprint for Impeachment." "The Uprising." "Plunder and Blunder." "The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule."

Without Bush in power, such red meat is mostly off the rhetorical menu. And off the actual menu, too: Avocado soup, cheese souffle, salad and shortcake were served at yesterday's vegetarian lunch.

At the morning sessions, participants had plenty of praise for Obama. At the global warming panel, Jessy Tolkan of the Energy Action Coalition called the president "our biggest champion" and "the strongest, most influential progressive in the country." At a session on manufacturing, pollster Greenberg celebrated "a president who understands the issue," and Clyde Prestowitz of the Economic Strategy Institute grudgingly allowed that "what the administration has been doing in the case of banks and the auto industry is probably necessary."

But defending the state isn't very exciting, and in the big ballroom for the luncheon, no television news cameras were on the risers, which had been crowded in recent years. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) tried to work up the crowd. "How you guys doin'?" he asked. Isolated cheers. "C'mon, now, let me hear you!" More isolated cheers.

Other speakers had protested Obama's "vulture capitalist" rescue of General Motors, his "crony capitalism" bailout of Wall Street and his pro-Israel policy. Ellison demanded investigations of Bush administration wrongdoings -- "and anybody who doesn't want to do it in the administration needs to be pushed to do it."

But Ellison didn't sound terribly optimistic. "Our movement lacks muscle and bone density," he diagnosed.

Reminding the audience of the group's more muscular days, Borosage played a tape of Obama speeches at the 2006 and 2007 Take Back America conferences. Over rock music, one clip had him saying: "It's going to be because of you that we take our country back."

That was from June 2007, before Obama took back America -- and took away the progressives' rallying cry.

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