Why liberals soured on President Obama in 2013
For progressives, the post-election honeymoon is over
Published December 18, 2013, at 6:18 AM
One year removed from re-election, President Obama's approval rating has sunk to the lowest level of his presidency. Furthermore, Obama's popularity among the Democratic Party base — whose rejuvenated support proved crucial last November — took a huge hit this past year.
Only 54 percent of self-described liberals "very strongly" approve of Obama's job performance, according to a Pew survey released this week. That's down from an all-time high of nearly 90 percent, and a significant decline from the 73 percent who strongly approved of the president back in June.
Why the steep drop? Well, the first year of Obama's second term was marked by a litany of scandals and failures — from the embarrassing revelations about the National Security Agency's spy programs to the awful rollout of the ObamaCare website — that were most abhorrent to the party faithful.
Before his second term even started, Obama struck a fiscal deal at the start of the year with Republicans that locked in most of the Bush-era tax cuts. Many on the Left felt that Obama, fresh off a resounding re-election victory secured in part by his championing of higher taxes on the nation's wealthiest, had blown an opportunity to demand deeper concessions from a weakened GOP.
The deal triggered a "wave of grievance from liberal activists, labor leaders, and economists," wrote the New York Times' Peter Baker, which "suggested that the uneasy truce between Mr. Obama and his base that held through the campaign season had expired now that there was no longer a threat of a Mitt Romney victory."
As the year wore on, those same erstwhile supporters bristled over what they viewed as a troubling foreign policy coming out of the White House.
In May, Obama delivered a highly anticipated speech outlining the administration's use of drones, which was partly intended to assuage liberal anger over the program. Yet the speech failed to impress, and the anger only grew as deadly drone strikes remained the norm; an attack last week in Yemen killed 17, most of whom were civilians in a wedding party.
Obama's expanded use of drones "looks a lot like a campaign of assassination," the liberal Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote this month. "Bush's theory of war was clear and morally indefensible," he added. "Obama's is fuzzy and morally ambiguous."
On Syria, the president managed to look simultaneously hawkish and incompetent. He laid out a strong case for an unpopular military intervention after the regime crossed a "red line" of using chemical weapons, rankling liberals who couldn't conceive of the president getting the nation entangled in another foreign campaign. He then made what appeared to be a disastrous decision to take the matter to Congress, before backtracking into a Russian-brokered deal that came as a result of a John Kerry gaffe.
Amid all that, there were the incredible revelations about the government's spy operations, leaked to the Guardian and other news outlets by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Obama campaigned in 2008 as a vocal critic of the Bush administration's spy programs. Yet the leaks revealed that Obama's White House, too, was indiscriminately vacuuming up the phone and Internet records of millions of Americans.
The New York Times editorial board wrote that the administration had "lost all credibility on this issue." And the Progressive Change Campaign Committee immediately launched a petition demanding a congressional investigation; within hours, they had more than 10,000 signatures.
On Monday, a federal judge ruled that the bulk phone data collection program was likely unconstitutional, delivering the program its first major legal blow and reaffirming what civil libertarians have long claimed.
Pretty astounding when a fed. judge says "James Madison...would be aghast" while describing a surveillance practice http://t.co/TdRLcIILXJ
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) December 16, 2013
On the legislative front, progressives have also been miffed by Obama's limited achievements. Gun control, though enormously popular in public opinion polls, went down with barely a whimper despite Sandy Hook. More recently, immigration reform — a primary Democratic policy goal that passed the Senate with bipartisan support over the summer — died in the House. Meanwhile, the jobless rate remains at 7.0 percent, and unemployment insurance benefits for 1.3 million workers are set to expire shortly after Christmas.
Progressives have now begun begging Obama to take executive action on everything from raising the minimum wage to unilaterally legalizing the status of undocumented workers. Obama finally pushed back against those calls late last month, saying "there is no shortcut to democracy," much to his supporters' chagrin.
There have been other bumps along the way, too. For instance, the administration caught flak for aggressively pursuing leaks and launching legally dubious investigations into the press. And then there was a little something called ObamaCare, the hope and pride of the Democratic Party, which failed so spectacularly out of the gate that liberals could only gape in astonishment at the White House's carelessness.
Some Democrats fretted that the health-care law's terrible debut could prove disastrous for the cause of liberalism in general. And on a more immediate level, polls found that key Democratic voting groups — notably, white women — had dramatically soured on the law.
Progressives still have plenty of hope for Obama. But at this point, they'd prefer some change.