Obama's liberal base 'disengaged'

Updated 3m ago
By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Is President Obama losing his base?
Liberal and progressive organizations that helped propel him to the White House are turning on him now, little more than a year after he took office. Their collective discontent, on issues from health care to nuclear energy to the handling of terror suspects, could mean bad news for Democrats during this fall's congressional elections.

Polls show liberals and blacks still approve of the job Obama's doing. That approval, however, doesn't necessarily mean they will make the effort to vote, and many of the activists and groups that worked to get people to the polls in 2008 say they're not inclined right now to help Democrats in the fall.

"The energized base which transformed the nation and elected our first black president (is) now disengaged," Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile says. "If this was September, I would hit the panic button."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs routinely brushes off questions about whether Obama and the Democrats are losing key constituencies, but he says the notion that the president is taking liberals for granted is "silly."

Still, signs of trouble for the Democratic majority in Congress are springing up in:

•Virginia, where a host of liberal groups are rallying supporters and students to protest the upcoming University of Virginia appearance of former Bush administration top Justice Department official John Yoo.

Yoo, who wrote the legal memos authorizing the use of controversial interrogation techniques against terror suspects, is scheduled to speak at the school in Charlottesville on March 19. He will be greeted by protesters, from groups such as Veterans for Peace and the National Accountability Network, who are angry that the Obama administration has declined to prosecute him for the so-called "torture memos."

Organizer David Swanson calls the administration's positions on protecting state secrets and war crimes "a disaster."

The American Civil Liberties Union concurs. The group recently warned the White House not to reverse its decision to try terror suspects in civilian courts.

If Obama has suspects tried before military commissions "he will betray his campaign promise to restore the rule of law, demonstrate that his principles are up for grabs and lose all credibility with Americans who care about justice and the rule of law," ACLU Director Anthony Romero says.

•Georgia and South Carolina, where the environmental group Friends of the Earth (FOE) this month ran TV ads denouncing the Obama administration's decision to approve $55 billion in private industry loan guarantees for what would be the first nuclear reactors built in the United States in three decades.

The group also was alarmed when Obama talked in his State of the Union Address about investing in "clean coal" and opening new offshore oil drilling, spokesman Nick Berning says.

FOE's political arm endorsed candidate Obama but "we've been disappointed so far with President Obama," Berning says.

•Arkansas, where liberal groups are backing Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a primary challenge to two-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who is backed by Obama.

In three days earlier this month, the liberal group MoveOn.org raised $1 million for Halter, in average donations of $30. He also nabbed the endorsement of the Arkansas AFL-CIO. "This overwhelming response to Bill Halter's candidacy shows the depth of voters' anger towards corporate politicians," MoveOn Director Justin Ruben says.

A chief complaint against Lincoln: She opposed including a government-run health care program, known as the public option, in legislation that passed the Senate in December.

She's unapologetic. "I don't answer to my party," she says in TV ads now airing in the state. "I answer to Arkansas."

Polls show those who represent a significant chunk of Obama's base still back him. Although the samples are small and the margins of error high, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken in January found that nearly nine in 10 blacks approve of the job Obama's doing, as do more than seven in 10 liberals.

Regardless, a growing number of liberal groups and activists say they've had enough of Democrats who break their promises or cater to conservatives.

"The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now in shock," says longtime Democratic activist-turned-blogger Chris Bowland, 52, of Santa Rosa, Calif. "It's very clear the party hates us and has no respect for its base."

Bowland, who this month changed his party registration to the Green Party, says the Democrats are going to pay for it at the polls in November.

"Who is it that shows up to man your phone banks and who goes knocking on your doors? Unions and left-wing activists like me," he says. But Obama has broken his campaign promises and now, "we've had it. I'm done."

Republican pollster Frank Luntz says the angst on Obama's left is sure to benefit the GOP.

"It's the perfect storm" for Obama, he says. "All the conservative groups are coalescing out of anger and all the liberal groups are disappearing out of anger. If he moves to satisfy one, he destroys himself with the other. … He's in a really tough spot."

Brazile says there's time to repair the damage and re-energize liberal activists. "Will it be a tough spin? You betcha," she says. "But I do think President Obama and the party will be up to the task."

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