When President Barack Obama speaks to the Notre Dame commencement Sunday afternoon, television cameras will search the sea of graduates, looking for turned backs and defaced mortar boards that abortion opponents will likely use to register their disagreement with the president.
But the attention to protests from conservatives who don’t support Obama – and almost certainly never would – could obscure the far more significant political threat he now faces.
Barely four months into his presidency, Obama is confronting growing dissatisfaction among members of his liberal base, who feel spurned by a series of his early decisions on issues ranging from guns to torture to immigration to gay rights.
The list got longer last week as Obama reversed his earlier decision to release photos of detainees abused in U.S. military custody and announced plans to try some terror suspects before military commissions – though on the campaign trail he railed against earlier versions of the tribunals.
A few, like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, have even hurled the left’s ultimate epithet – suggesting that Obama’s turning into George W. Bush.
The building anger comes at a critical moment – just as Obama’s about to announce his choice for the Supreme Court. Fulfill their dreams of a “liberal Scalia,” a firebrand from the left, and much would be forgiven.
But if Obama opts instead for a decidedly centrist nominee aimed at winning a large number of Republican votes in the Senate, the growing concern could develop into something more politically dangerous.
“Even though I think he can get away with a more centrist candidate, he has to be careful not to be spitting in the eyes of his base,” said Laura Murphy, a lobbyist and former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office.
“He’s got to be concerned about the cumulative impact dampening the energy and enthusiasm he needs for the midterm elections,” Murphy said. “If he doesn’t sustain a sizeable Democratic majority, he’s going to have a hard time finishing his very big agenda.”
“I could see the shrewdness of it,” John Brittain of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said, referring to the possibility Obama would turn to a middle-of-the-road candidate. “They would be kind of punting on the Supreme Court issue to focus on other issues. I think it would take a lot of the wind out of Obama’s sails—his popularity, not necessarily in polling numbers, but in spirit.”
Brittain said such a nominee would be confirmed – but liberal groups would probably be slow to respond to future calls for help from Obama. “When he went to press the button next to rally up people, I think there would still be a lingering issue,” Brittain said.
For liberals who viewed Obama as something of a savior after eight years of Bush, the discontents are piling up.
He has pushed gun control to the back burner, used the state secrets privilege to try to quash lawsuits over warrantless wiretapping, opposed a “truth commission” to investigate alleged torture and sought to deny some legal protections to detainees in Afghanistan.
And he’s made clear he’s in no rush to do immigration reform or repeal the military’s ban on openly gay servicemembers.
A growing number of organizations, bloggers and pundits, many of whom kept quiet about slights in Obama’s first few months, are now going public with their disillusionment.
“On torture, change we wanted to believe in feels like more of the same,” the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch said in a joint statement Friday.
“I have a sickeningly familiar feeling in my stomach, and the feeling deepens with every interaction with the Obama team on [gay] issues. They want them to go away. They want us to go away,” the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan wrote last week, dismissing Obama’s pledge to end the "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" policy as “toilet paper.”
Maddow accused Obama of doing a “blatant 180” on military commissions. On issues like the wiretapping suits, some critics have suggested Obama is even worse than Bush.
Mindful of those concerns, Obama aides invited about half a dozen left-leaning organizations to a White House meeting Wednesday to discuss the Supreme Court pick. At the session, which lasted about an hour, groups such as People for the American Way, the National Council of La Raza, and the National Partnership for Women and Families offered their views on the criteria Obama should use to make his choice, according to participants who asked not to be identified. However, no names of potential candidates were discussed, they said. Neither Obama nor White House Counsel Greg Craig attended the meeting, the sources said.
The meeting came one day after the White House publicly expressed irritation at some lobbying—apparently that of gay, Latino and women’s activists publicly calling for a nominee from one or more of those groups. ““I don’t think that the lobbying of interest groups will help,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday. “I think in many ways lobbying can – and will –be counterproductive.”
Most of the names floated in the press as possible replacements for Justice David Souter have been well received by liberal groups. However, Obama aides have repeatedly noted that some names under active consideration have not been aired publicly. Liberal activists chafed at a report in POLITICO last week that the White House is considering Jim Comey, a No. 2 official at the Bush Justice Department. Some Obama aides apparently think Comey would be a viable choice because he stood up to the White House over wiretapping and criticized what he saw as efforts to politicize the Justice Department.
“He was deputy attorney general serving in Bush’s administration. He came in with the Bushies. What makes you think he’d be just an inch or two more to the center than [Chief Justice] Roberts?” Brittain asked. “I’d be greatly disappointed.”
The left’s leader for many past fights for and against Supreme Court nominees, Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice, declined to discuss specific candidates, but said she’s hoping for a nominee who will be a “strong voice…and who believes in justice for all and not just for a few.”
Aron said Obama shouldn’t worry too much about how the right will assess the nomination. “My sense is that this president is enjoying great popularity, is an effective communicator and should pick the candidate of his choice,” she said. “This is a legacy issue for him.”
The current discontent with Obama among some on the left is not evenly distributed among liberal groups. Advocates for health care and the environment tend to be the most enthusiastic about the new president’s efforts. Immigrants’ rights groups are wary, while civil libertarians and human rights activists seem to be the most dejected.
Michael Meyers of the New York Civil Rights Coalition said many Obama supporters (with support from voices on the right) built him up to be more of a liberal icon than his public speeches and writings ever justified.
“They invested in Obama everything they wanted the next president to be. They thought, ‘He’s black, liberal, anti-Iraq War… urban, young.’ He was all of that and smart and he went to a radical church. They just knew,” Meyers said. “They exaggerated him. They saw him as a messiah. No president is a messiah.”
“He’s not the person that people thought he was,” Meyers said. “The left is finding that out and the right is finding that out.”
Obama has acknowledged that his own political backers often see in him what they want to see. “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views,” he wrote in his 2006 book, “The Audacity of Hope.”
Meyers called “absurd” the arguments Obama used this week to explain his new opposition to disclosure of the detainee abuse photos. “He’s backtracking and the decisions he’s been making have disappointed civil rights people and civil libertarians,” the activist said. “While I’m disappointed, I’m not shocked.”
On Friday, Gibbs adamantly denied that Obama has modified his positions on issues such as military commissions and don’t-ask-don’t-tell.
Gibbs also ridiculed the notion that Obama was adopting Bush’s policies, noting the president is regularly accused of taking positions sharply at odds with his predecessor. “I’ll let you guys discern what inflection point -- what period of day that all changed,” Gibbs said sarcastically.