By Dan Balz
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Through most of the summer, opposition to President Obama and his health-care initiative has come almost entirely from the right. In the past week, however, the president has been trying to tamp down a noisy uprising on the left.
The immediate cause for the rebellion is growing concern among Obama's progressive allies that he is prepared to deal away the public insurance option to win passage of a health-care bill. Obama insists that he still prefers the public option as part of any legislative package, but some friends on the left now clearly doubt his resolve.
That has given way to broader criticisms: Is Obama tough enough to defeat the interests arrayed against health-care legislation? Has he lost the passion that was such an asset during the campaign? Have his rhetorical skills been muted as he descends into the dry, arcane details of health care? Is he too enamored of bipartisan consensus, given what is seen as Republican implacability? Has he given up the moral high ground in the health-care battle?
From liberal commentators to progressive bloggers to grass-roots activists who went door to door during the campaign, there has been a chorus of concerns raised about Obama -- on health-care strategy, on the deals he and his team have struck with the health-care industry, on the stepped-up troop commitment in Afghanistan, on detainees and torture policy.
How serious is the discontent on the left? Jane Hamsher, founder of the progressive blog http://firedoglake.com and a harsh critic of the White House strategy on health care, said Obama and his team have negotiated themselves into an untenable corner and should not expect the left to bail them out.
"I think it was always coming, and I think they were foolish not to see it coming," she said of the disenchantment expressed by some on the left. "He campaigned on a public plan, and people are really attached to it."
The deals the White House has made with drug companies and other health-industry stakeholders, she added, "have neutered their ability to pass any kind of meaningful health care reform. . . . There is no natural constituency for that bill. Blue Dogs don't want it. Republicans don't want it. Progressives don't want it."
Obama seems to regard the flare-up on the left as less serious. He coined the phrase of the week in describing the state of play in health-care politics when he said that in August, Washington often gets "wee-weed up" over some change in the landscape. He urged everyone to calm down.
David Plouffe, Obama's 2008 campaign manager, a year ago dismissed Democratic nervousness about Obama's candidacy and pointed criticism of the campaign's strategy as "hand-wringing and bed-wetting." Now he says the current uproar reminds him of those trying moments when Obama's allies were running for cover.
"In many respects, this is not different from the political campaign we went through," he said. "There are going to be twists and turns and moments you think are going to be decisive. I'm not sure this is a seminal moment. But people have strong views and have a right to air those views."
A close look at public polling offers some perspective on the current clamor from the left. Obama is still highly popular among liberals, but there has been some falloff, although precisely how much and for what reason are not clear.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that Obama's overall approval rating among liberals has gone from 94 percent at the 100-day mark of his presidency in April to 83 percent today. Fifteen percent now disapprove, up from 1 percent in April.
An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll also showed the president's approval among liberals dropping. It went from 89 percent in April to 81 percent last week, with disapproval hitting double digits for the first time (at 13 percent).
The Pew Research Center measured changes among liberal Democrats and found that Obama's approval slid from 95 percent positive in July to 86 percent in August. The falloff among liberal Democrats was one of the biggest recorded for any group examined in the poll.
One note of caution is that these polls were completed before the turbulence over the public option hit full force.
Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who teams with Democrat Peter Hart to conduct polls for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, said that over the past month there seemed to be as much or more movement away from Obama among white Democrats who say they are not liberal or moderate (the equivalent of Blue Dog Democrats) as among liberals.
He also emphasized that the changes measurable in public opinion surveys among these groups are subtle and very much at the margins. "Here's the point you can make as a pollster," he said. "We can measure from late July to mid-August. To the extent there was slippage, it was from the right side of his party, not his left. But now that the president is in the crossfire on dealing with the public plan, that could be changing."
Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew Research Center, said it is difficult to know whether the changes in support simply reflect that liberal Democrats are catching up with other Americans in their perceptions of Obama or whether the uproar over the public plan marks a genuine change in attitudes.
Kohut said Obama is still doing better with his base than Bill Clinton was doing at a comparable point in his presidency and is doing about as well as George W. Bush did in holding support among his party's base. "There are a few clouds that weren't there a month or two ago, but there's not a real storm brewing with the base for Obama," he said.
White House officials said Obama's public advocacy last week, including a conference call with grass-roots supporters during which an estimated 280,000 people dialed in, has helped to calm nerves on the left. It's likely to take more than that, however, to stir the passions of those who long for a return to the atmospherics of the campaign.
Plouffe said he thinks Democrats have a historic opportunity to make improvements in the economy, health care and energy that will benefit the country and pay dividends to their party for years to come -- if they don't lose their nerve. "That could be our legacy and will be our legacy," he argued. "We need to stay focused on that."
The test will come in the fall, when Democrats are presented with a concrete set of proposals and the bells ring for a vote. That will be when it becomes clear if there is a real rupture between Obama and his progressive allies.