WASHINGTON -- In recent weeks, President Barack Obama has seen a wide variety of his policy proposals – foreign and domestic – lambasted on television ads, mocked at rallies and challenged in petitions.
None of that seems surprising until you know this: Each one of those campaigns was organized by members of his own party.
Obama has long since grown accustomed to relentless criticism from Republicans, with this week’s showdown over the budget and health care just the latest example. But now, nearly a year into his second term, he faces surprisingly fierce opposition from Democrats who are more willing than ever to challenge him in public.
Liberal members of his party have fought him on his vast government spying programs, his desire to conduct a military strike on Syria and his consideration of Larry Summers to head the Federal Reserve. That opposition led Obama to reverse course on two policies, and reconsider the third.
Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group, said that her members feel some “anguish” opposing a president they worked hard to elect but that they are proud of their impact on major public policy issues. “It’s a reminder of how strong the progressive base is,” she said.
The White House downplays any rift within the party, but Obama himself acknowledged some discontent just last week when he pledged to work with Republicans on the budget impasse that was threatening to shut down the federal government.
“I have said in the past, and I will continue to say, that I’m willing to make a whole bunch of tough decisions – ones that may not be entirely welcomed by my own party,” he said Friday at the White House.
Obama stitched together a growing progressive coalition searching for a change to politics as usual to win in 2008 and again in 2012.
In his first term, liberal Democrats praised Obama’s push for a federal health care law, dubbed Obamacare, his endorsement of same-sex marriage – even if it came after some prodding by Vice President Joe Biden – and his decision to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There were disagreements over the failure to implement clean air regulations and the use of unmanned drones to kill suspected terrorists abroad, but it wasn’t until the end of last year that Obama’s relationship with the liberal base took a distinct turn. Angry lawmakers, progressive groups and unions complained bitterly about his willingness to modify entitlement programs, including Social Security, and allow drastic cuts as he engaged in fiscal negotiations with Republicans. Some protested outside the White House.
Then, a fresh set of troubles erupted after his second inauguration.
Some of his strongest allies expressed outrage after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret documents showing the administration had broken privacy rules thousands of times a year while collecting massive amounts of telephone and email records. More than 150 Democratic lawmakers sent Obama a letter questioning the programs, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the news “extremely disturbing.”
Months later, Obama asked Congress to authorize an unpopular military strike on Syria, leading a coalition of progressive organizations, including CREDO Action, Progressive Change Campaign Committee and MoveOn.org, to organize candlelight vigils, a national day of action, even a TV ad campaign. Just as Obama was about to suffer an embarrassing defeat in Congress, in part because of Democrats, he asked lawmakers to postpone the vote to explore a last-minute Russian diplomatic proposal. “Public pressure worked,” the Progressive Change Campaign Committee proclaimed.