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At progressive gathering, hints of anxiety about Obama

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Fri June 21, 2013
Protesters send a message to the president over the Keystone XL pipeline at a Santa Monica, California, fund-raiser this month.
Protesters send a message to the president over the Keystone XL pipeline at a Santa Monica, California, fund-raiser this month.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some progressives dismayed with compromises and slow pace of change in Obama years
  • Despite the evident frustration, there were no hints of outright anger about President Obama
  • "Sometimes the administration is standing in the way ... ," one Netroots participant says

San Jose, California (CNN) -- Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and Democratic firebrand, stood behind a podium at the San Jose Convention Center and neatly summed up the current zeitgeist of the left.

"Is the president perfect?" Dean asked a buzzing audience of left-leaning bloggers, political activists and organizers on Thursday evening. "No. But it sure is better than having Bain Capital, I mean Mitt Romney, in there."

Dean's growling joke crystallized the prevailing liberal sentiment about President Barack Obama as the curtain rose on Netroots Nation, the annual progressive conference started in 2006 by the creators of the Daily Kos, a popular left-leaning blog and founding member of an online grass-roots movement that eventually helped lift Obama into the White House.

From the left, Dean open to presidential run

Obama the senator made a pilgrimage to the 2007 conference, then called Yearly Kos, and charmed the assembled bloggers as he mounted what seemed an impossible primary campaign against Hillary Clinton.

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In 2013, Obama the president sent a YouTube video. He wasn't exactly missed.

On a host of issues from National Security Agency surveillance to Wall Street reform to foreclosure assistance to the Keystone XL pipeline debate, the more than 2,000 activists in San Jose for the eighth Netroots Nation expressed dismay about the compromises and slow pace of progress that have so far marked Obama's tenure in the White House.

"If George Bush was in there, I'd more frustrated," said Tony Alexander, political director for a local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. "But we have Barack Obama, so it's a little less frustrating."

But frustrating nonetheless.

To many here, the hard-won battles of the 2012 campaign have not yielded much at all.

"We are in the middle of foreclosure crisis, and we haven't seen any real action on principal reduction, and we haven't seen any of the banks get prosecuted for some of things that were supposedly under investigation," said Liz Butler, a fellow at the Movement Strategy Center, a social justice organization. "A lot of us have concerns within the progressive, social justice and environmental movement about the lack of action on a whole set of issues."

Scott Paul, a self-described "labor Democrat" and president of the nonpartisan Alliance for American Manufacturing, pointed to Obama's promise at the Democratic National Convention to create 1 million new manufacturing jobs by the end of his second term.

'The American people want to believe in something'

"The first five months are in, and there is virtually no job creation, so they are already way behind on manufacturing," said Paul, who was enticing conference-goers to his display in the Netroots Nation exhibition hall with classic arcade games such as Galaga and Pac-Man. "How much of it was rhetorical? A lot of it was, clearly."

Across the hall from Paul's display, staffers from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a 1 million-member advocacy group founded by two former MoveOn.org organizers, was doing a brisk business handing out blue-and-white bumper stickers declaring, "I'm from the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party."

Warren, the senator from Massachusetts who endeared herself to the left by pushing for student loan reform and greater Wall Street regulation, long ago surpassed Obama as a darling of the left, said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

The president's attempt to pass sweeping gun control legislation after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School offered a glimmer of hope for liberals, Green said, but that soon faded.

"The American people want to believe in something, someone, and there are moments like the gun debate when the president did what progressives wanted all along, which is propose the boldest possible bill and barnstorm the country fighting for it," he said.

"But on things like foreclosures, and even jobs, there is the absence of a policy. On some things he is just wrong, and on other things he is just absent. Why isn't he giving a speech on jobs every single week? Why isn't he owning that issue? He is almost treating his presidency like he is treading water. There are people who want to rally behind his leadership if he is willing to lead, but he is not."

Obama recorded a video message for the conference that ran during the opening night of speeches on Thursday. It was sandwiched between the address by Dean and another by Sandra Fluke, the attorney and women's rights activist who became a Democratic celebrity during the 2012 presidential race when radio talker Rush Limbaugh called her a "slut" for advocating for greater access to contraceptives.

"We won't always agree on everything, and I know you'll tell me when we don't, but if we work together, I am confident we will keep moving this country forward," Obama said in the video, which was met by tepid applause though it highlighted accomplishments such as increasing home sales and passing an extension of the Violence Against Women Act.

The president's complicated relationship with his party's activist wing is, in a certain sense, as institutional as it is ideological. Every president, liberal or conservative, has been forced to make compromises that rankled even his most loyal supporters.

Left has long record of restlessness

But Obama's other challenge is that the political left has long had a knack for restlessness, even with one of its own occupying the Oval Office.

Until the second term of President George W. Bush exposed his party's fault lines, Republicans for decades had a prized tradition of marching in lockstep with party leadership, especially when the GOP held the White House.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, is routinely disparaged -- even by its own professional class in Washington -- as less a party than a feuding and loosely affiliated federation of special interests and demographic groups: organized labor, abortion rights supporters, environmentalists, racial minorities, students and others.

"Every president has to operate within the framework of a lot of competing interests and organizations that are supporting or against him, especially Democrats," said Jann Dorothy, a Netroots attendee from Sacramento, California, who is supportive of the president. "He has to always balance the various constituencies that are out there. It's a bit like herding cats."

Dorothy said that "a lot of people here are frustrated, very upset" about the NSA surveillance and data collection programs that former contractor Edward Snowden revealed this month.

Obama's approval rating has slipped in the wake of revelations about his administration's sweeping surveillance programs, but Democrats continue to give him high marks. A CNN/ORC International poll from this week shows Obama's approval rating among Democrats at 83%, down six percentage points from last month. Among liberals the rating fell three points to 75%

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But the lanyard-wearing Netroots crowd bristled at party labels. They were more likely to identify themselves with a particular cause -- opposing the Keystone pipeline, for instance, or halting forced deportations of illegal immigrants. Breakout sessions at the conference largely focused on tactical matters such as media strategy and grass-roots organizing, not passing Obama's political agenda.

"I don't think there is a terribly strong allegiance to the Democratic Party here," Dean said in an interview with CNN.

It is a demanding bunch. Everyone who came to Netroots arrived with a pet issue or two, but it was difficult on the conference's first day to find anyone who said the president had done enough to satisfy his or her demands.

The exceptions to that rule were supporters of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, who applauded the president for backing same-sex marriage and said the administration has accomplished most of what they wanted.

Still, many questions about the president from a reporter were met with shrugs and the occasional eye roll.

The tension revealed itself in a roundtable session Thursday morning with leaders from Organizing for Action, a grass-roots advocacy group that sprang from Obama's last campaign.

Does group exist only to push Obama's agenda?

The group seeks to pressure members of Congress to back the White House's agenda, largely through local media events and partnerships with sympathetic interest groups such as Planned Parenthood.

But several activists who attended the roundtable pointedly questioned the group's executive director, Jon Carson, about its mission: Is its goal just to help Obama get his agenda passed? Or does it care about other progressive issues that don't quite jell with Obama's objectives?

The topic of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil reserves from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, was repeatedly broached. Several attendees doubted Organizing for Action's sincerity on climate change given the president's punting on a decision on construction of the 1,700-mile pipeline.

"Sometimes the administration is standing in the way of the agenda we all voted for," one participant said.

Carson gamely tried to manage the situation.

"I think what I would say is, we do partnerships primarily on specific actions," he said. "That's what we are offering. We wouldn't ask anyone, 'Let's make sure 100% of our agenda lines up before we go yell at (Sen.) Kelly Ayotte before her vote on background checks.' But when we do line up our agendas on what we care about, we will find at least 80% matching."

Sara El-Amine, the group's national organizing director, said, "We can't be all things to everyone."

Despite the evident frustration, there were no hints of outright anger about Obama among the convention participants. He is still their president, and as Dean pointed out, it could be much worse.

Former Obama campaign staffers wandered the hallways sharing hugs with friends in the blogger community, and Obama T-shirts are a frequent sight on the backs of conference-goers. Booze-soaked parties are as much a part of the agenda as networking and political organizing. The 2016 presidential race and discussions about putative front-runner Hillary Clinton are only conversation topics when brought up by reporters.

Stop Hillary effort launches

The anxiety here is hard to define, but it might have something to do with the fact that liberals find themselves in the unusual position of being two-time winners on a grand scale.

For a progressive movement that started as an underdog insurgency fighting back against the powerful Bush administration, it's kind of weird to be on top for five years running. These activists crashed the gate a long time ago. Their ambitions are a bit less sweeping, more prosaic and narrowly focused.

"It's exciting to be coming together after we all performed really well as a party," said Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman for Emily's List, a group that supports female Democratic candidates. "We ran really good candidates; we had really good issues and we won. So I think now we all get to stand around and talk about what do we do with a win, which might not be the most natural position for everybody here.

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