Liberal Democrats in and out of Congress are expressing mounting frustration with President Obama and what they say are decisions by the president discarding major elements of their agenda.
The political left provided Mr. Obama’s base of support during last year’s election but has been disappointed repeatedly during his first year in office. The Democratic president has agreed to a series of compromises on health care reform, ordered an escalation of the war in Afghanistan and failed to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
When Mr. Obama this week gave tacit approval as Senate Democrats dropped the “public insurance” option from their health care bill and top House Democrats fell in line, liberal lawmakers accused the president of losing control of the debate.
“It’s time for the president to get his hands dirty,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat and a leading liberal vote in Congress on health care issues. He argued that Democrats have been forced to accept compromises in recent weeks that have undermined their goals in overhauling the nation’s health care system.
“We need the president to stand up for the values our party shares. We must stop letting the tail wag the dog of this debate,” he said.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean called the emerging Senate compromise a “terrible disappointment” and encouraged Democratic lawmakers to kill the bill.
The White House defended the president on Wednesday against suggestions that his support among progressives was slipping.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed as “silly” the notion that Mr. Obama is taking liberal support for granted when making decisions about health care, Afghanistan, gay rights or any other agenda item.
“I’ve never heard the president say, ‘Oh, I don’t have to worry about that because these people are going to be with me,’ ” Mr. Gibbs said. “I’ve been with the president for six years and I’ve never heard him say something as silly as that.”
Mr. Gibbs stressed that the president was “not making policy decisions based on a lot of weighing back and forth on different political ideas” and is certainly “not making decisions about our national security based on looking at this through the political lens.”
Mr. Obama’s recent moves, nevertheless, are causing undisguised heartburn on the left.
Some liberal members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, including independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Democrat Roland W. Burris of Illinois, say they will not help pass a health care bill - the cornerstone of Mr. Obama’s domestic agenda - if the president bargains away the best parts of proposed reforms, in particular the public option.
Proponents of a government-run insurance plan say it is essential to make private insurers compete to raise coverage levels and cut rates.
Quoting Mahatma Gandhi on the Senate floor, Mr. Burris said, “There can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender.”
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich,Ohio Democrat and a leading critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said liberals did not get who they thought they would when they voted strongly for Mr. Obama in the Democratic primaries and the 2008 presidential election.
“I think that the year 2009 offers plenty of evidence that political labels are virtually meaningless. They do not describe where people stand or where they are going,” Mr. Kucinich said.
Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, acknowledged that the White House has failed to deliver top liberal priorities but said Mr. Obama deserved credit for expanding health care coverage for children and passing the $787 billion stimulus package in February.
“I’d much rather have Obama as president than George W. Bush or John McCain,” he said. “It is true that people like me are not getting everything we want, but we are getting some things.”
Mr. McGovern, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he hasn’t decided whether he will vote for a final health care bill if it lacks the public option.
But a co-chairman of the caucus, Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, said a majority of the 83-member liberal bloc will vote against the final bill if Mr. Obama cannot restore a government-run health insurance plan.
“We need strong leadership so close to the finish line, not efforts to water down a bill to the breaking point in a misguided attempt to win votes that were never there,” the Arizona Democrat said.
Mr. Obama this week summoned all 60 members of the Senate Democratic caucus to the White House to rally support for the health care bill. Afterward, the bill appeared to still lack the votes needed to pass and Democrats were still at odds over abortion policy and the government’s role in the health care system.
Adding to some liberals’ frustration, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland signaled Tuesday that House Democrats were ready to give up their demand for a public option in the final bill. He said the Senate won’t accept the public option and “you’ve got to focus on what you can get.”
“I’m not discussing the perfect; I’m discussing the possible,” Mr. Hoyer told reporters.
The escalation of the war in Afghanistan is also proving a tough sell among liberals. Congress has not blocked the administration’s defense funding requests, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, on Wednesday made it clear that the onus was on the president to sell his strategy to skeptical lawmakers.
“The president is going to have to make his case,” Mrs. Pelosi told reporters, saying she would not pressure members of the Democratic majority to side with Mr. Obama on war votes.
Some liberals are openly defying Mr. Obama on the Afghanistan surge.
In a floor speech, Rep. Alan Grayson, Florida Democrat, urged his colleagues to block Mr. Obama’s war plan. “The American people are tired of war,” he said.
“The goals of expelling al Qaeda and overthrowing the Taliban were accomplished years ago,” he said. “The notion that an increase of 30,000 troops is necessary to ensure America’s security is absurd.”
Liberals have given some praise to Mr. Obama on issues such as climate change and the drive to close the detention center for terrorist suspects at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The administration announced on Tuesday plans to move some of the approximately 200 Guantanamo detainees to a state prison in rural Illinois. Plans also are in the works for a federal trial in New York City for a handful of detainees accused of plotting the September 11, 2001, attacks.
On climate change, Mr. Obama has pushed for a plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions, sell pollution credits and allow them to be traded by companies - a so-called “cap-and-trade” system.
The House passed a bill that addresses climate change, but the prospects are far less certain in the Senate.
Mr. Obama has pressed ahead in the meantime. The Environmental Protection Agency has laid the groundwork to act unilaterally to impose controls on carbon dioxide emissions if lawmakers fail to act.
The president plans to leave Thursday evening for a U.N. summit in Copenhagen in hopes of clinching a deal to address the climate change issue.
Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.
• S.A. Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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