In a recent article in the Washington Post, E. J. Dionne asked Senator Bernie Sanders about why President Obama “was in a political pickle.” He wanted to know his take on why the President’s poll numbers are flagging, and what happened to the wild enthusiasm of the campaign.
Sanders, the independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, speaks warmly of Obama. But unlike the man in the White House, Sanders actually is a socialist and believes devoutly in grass-roots, class-based politics.
And it is his faith in the power of a progressive movement organized around a clear set of commitments that lies at the heart of Sanders’s critique of where the president went wrong.
“Think back to two years ago,” Sanders said during an interview in the only Senate office decorated with a medallion of Eugene V. Debs, the legendary American Socialist leader. “There were rallies involving 80,000 to 100,000. Obama was running the best campaign I’ve seen in my lifetime — and I’m pretty critical.”
What happened? According to Dionne, Sanders believes the most serious mistake the president made was not continuing to keep the millions of ordinary American’s who elected him engaged in supporting his legislative agenda.
He argues that President Obama replaced “a mobilizing approach and clear progressive goals with an insider strategy aimed at compromising with a few moderate Republican senators.” By doing this he deactivated and effectively disempowered his base. His legislative agenda became watered down and he disappointed millions of Americans who felt they were promised more.
“While Obama and the Democrats have a large number of achievements, it was not enough,” said Sanders. “We needed to be bolder.”
Although angry and disappointed, shut-out progressive activists keenly understand how much damage an increasingly right-wing Republican Party would do if they won one or both houses this fall. Dionne reports that liberal blogs are fundraising for scores of Democratic candidates, and labor and civil rights groups organized their impressive One Nation Working Together march on Washington on October 2. It seems the “enthusiasm gap” about this year’s election may be slowly closing.
As a result, polls have begun to show signs of a modest swing towards Democrats. In a recent NBC News survey reported in the Wall Street Journal, when likely voters were asked which party they wanted to control Congress, Republicans led Democrats by three points, down from a nine-point GOP lead just a month ago.
Obama’s recent trip to Madison, WI where he spoke to a huge and enthusiastic crowd may reflect the White House’s realization that Sanders is right: “..that there is no substitute for a president making a coherent argument, taking on opponents who are eviscerating him daily, and acknowledging his dependence on those who brought him to office.” Drawing class lines and ideological distinctions between the parties, Obama framed Republican support for a $700 billion tax reduction for the wealthy as a blow to ordinary Americans who would suffer cuts in Head Start and student loans. Although seeming to backpedal from his description of himself as “a fierce free-market advocate,” and his praise for the “savvy businessmen of Wall Street,” he criticized the GOP’s “blind faith in the market” and the idea of letting “corporations play by their own rules.”
A president who largely disdained a mobilizing strategy for his first year and a half in office, and who recently called his progressive base “whiners,” has returned to them to try to salvage a midterm election. And he may just pull it off.
But Bernie Sanders wants to know if, after the elections, he will call on his supporters to back him in enacting the progressive political agenda he promised, or go back to an insider strategy that has demoralized them and helped bring him to the brink of losing the House and/or the Senate.