Democratic presidents and the left
Two readers e-mailed me in the past 24 hours with quotes showing the complicated relationship past Democratic presidents -- both real and fictional -- have had with the left. First up is a quote from Taylor Branch's book, "The Clinton Tapes," which recounts a contentious interview President Clinton sat for with Rolling Stone:
[Clinton] said Rolling Stone's founder, Jan Wenner, had come to the White House with author William Greider, a former Washington Post editor whose books included a populist critique of the Federal Reserve banking system. They had agreed not to discuss NAFTA because of Greider's implacable opposition, and the president said all went fine until Greidier brandished a photograph of a destitute-looking American to mount a sudden, dramatic attack.... Greider confronted him saying here is one of the countless poor people who looked to you for leadership -- you were their last hope. Now they feel utterly disillusioned and abandoned. Can you look into this face and name one thing you have done to help? Or one principle you won't compromise ? One cause you will uphold? One belief you would die for?
The president said he had replied in kind. "I kind of went off on him," the president recalled. He told Greider that he had done things already that no other president would do. He had raised taxes on the rich and lowered them for the poor. He had introduce the AmeriCorps service program, which Rolling Stone had campaigned for, and established it into law. He was taking on the gun lobby and the tobacco lobby. He had proposed fair treatment for gay soldiers. He was fighting for national health care, and more, but liberals paid very little attention to these things because they were bitchy and cynical about politics. They resented Clinton for respecting the votes of conservatives or the opinions of moderates. They wanted him to behave like a dictator because they didn't really care about results in the world.... He said he had pointed at Greider to tell him the problem is you, Bill Greider. You are a faulty citizen. You don't mobilize or persuade, because you only worry about being doctrinaire and proud. You are betraying your own principles with self-righteousness.
Clinton took a breath. "I did everything but fart in his face," he concluded.
At least President Obama didn't resort to farting. The next example comes from a fictional television character, not a president, but it certainly resonates with left's current feelings about Obama:
I have been watching the first season of the West Wing, and one particular line from the episode entitled "The Short List," where faux-President Jed Bartlet is choosing a nominee to replace a retiring Supreme Court Justice, was surprisingly relevant to the current state of President Obama's relationship with his liberal base. The retiring Justice is upset with Bartlet's reluctance to back up the inspirational progressiveness of his campaign:
"You ran great guns in the campaign. It was an insurgency, boy, a sight to see. And then you drove to the middle of the road the moment after you took the oath. Just the middle of the road. Nothing but a long line painted yellow...I wanted to retire five years ago. But I waited for a Democrat. I wanted a Democrat...And instead I got you."
This isn't to play down the real frustrations of the left, or of Obama. But there's some predictability to the frustration of a president's base when that president has to cut deals to get things done. And it wouldn't hurt for the president, who prides himself on his ability to empathize with others, to respond to that frustration with a bit more grace. As one political consultant wrote to me, "I wish [Obama] were as hard on the Republicans who are hurting the country as he is on the Democrats who don't want to compromise their principles."
| December 8, 2010; 1:40 PM ET
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