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Obama, Pelosi urge activists at Netroots Nation to keep fighting for change

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010; A06

LAS VEGAS -- President Obama and other Democratic leaders appealed to a gathering of prominent liberal activists Saturday, seeking to win back a disenchanted constituency that appears uninterested in helping the party avoid large losses in November's midterm elections.

In a videotaped speech at the annual Netroots Nation convention, Obama acknowledged that for many Americans, "change hasn't come fast enough." He said he shared that frustration, but he asked liberals to stick with him and the party.

"Change is hard, but if we've learned anything these past 18 months, it's that change is possible," Obama said, adding, "Let's finish what we've started."

Even so, some of the 2,100 liberal activists gathered here for a three-day conference were stewing over the Obama agenda and said they would do little to protect Democratic majorities in Congress.

"There's a lot of Democrats I'll be happy to see go," said Markos Moulitsas, who founded the convention five years ago as an offshoot of his Daily Kos blog. "There is a price to be paid for inaction and incompetence. We're not getting much done with 59 [Democratic senators], so if we're down to 54, who cares?"

The liberal Net-roots movement grew up fighting former president George W. Bush, and in 2008, progressives succeeded in helping push the Republican Party out of power. But the movement's leaders complain that their efforts have not been rewarded.

Obama and some congressional Democrats were too moderate in their approach to health care and have failed to act on other issues, the activists say. It was not lost on them that Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) last week said he was kicking legislation for a cap-and-trade system to curb greenhouse gases down the road until it has bipartisan support.

"I am so sick and tired of Democrats saying, 'We don't have the votes,' " Ed Shultz, a liberal radio commentator and MSNBC anchor, said in a keynote speech that electrified the audience on opening night. "You know what? Go get 'em!"

Dose of reality

By the conference's close Saturday, liberals had swallowed a dose of reality from the Democratic Party's top officials. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) arrived Saturday with a blunt appeal: The gates to a progressive agenda have opened under Democratic control, she said, and they will close if Republicans seize power.

"The leverage has changed," Pelosi said, over and over again, citing the passage of health care and financial regulatory reform. "This doesn't happen in a Republican Congress. . . . Understand what is at risk when we go into these elections 100 days from tomorrow."

Pelosi was enthusiastically embraced by the audience, as was Obama's video clip.

"In ways large and small, we've begun to deliver on the change we fought so hard for," Obama said, noting that he is working to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to end the combat mission in Iraq.

The Democratic Party is not alone in struggling with internal division. The GOP has been enmeshed in a civil war between "tea party" activists and the Republican establishment.

Many liberals in Las Vegas celebrated this fact, aware that Reid owes his lead in the polls to Republican challenger Sharron Angle's right-wing agenda. Moulitsas said in a speech that the tea party movement is "the best thing that happened to us this year."

Still, it is the right that has seized the political momentum, as poll after poll shows Republicans with a sizable advantage in enthusiasm. Democratic officials tried to close that gap by stoking the liberal base here, evoking Bush as a sort of boogeyman and using the prospect of a return to GOP control as a rallying cry.

"We fought so hard to get rid of George Bush, everything he represents, and it's easy once you've attained success as we did in 2008 to think the battle is over, that you've won," said Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. "But it isn't. The battle isn't over."

On Saturday, the activists also heard from Reid, who has frustrated them by again and again taking a more centrist approach than Pelosi.

Reid acknowledged that there are times "I get on your nerves" and joked, "I'm here to tell you that you get on my nerves." He added: "You and I might not see eye to eye on every policy detail, but we agree we can't afford to let the public buy what the Republican Party is selling."

'Lost and lonely'

Obama's 2008 campaign was "a campfire that all kinds of beautiful people came together," said Van Jones, a progressive activist and former White House "green jobs czar." But, he said, progressives started feeling "lost and lonely" during the administration's quest for bipartisanship.

"We had hope and change, and nobody managed the hope part," Jones said in a keynote address that was among the best received.

Nevertheless, Jones said it is "baffling" that liberals are mad at Obama. "When you guys get mad at the president, I can't stand it," Jones said. "Barack Obama, President Obama, volunteered to be the captain of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg."

It was enough to placate some. Michael Lyons, 59, a software manager from Oswego, Ore., said: "This is a wake-up call for the progressives to snap out of it and get back on track. We have to get that drive back, that enthusiasm back."

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