White House Unloads On “Professional Left”

The White House seems to be getting annoyed at the criticism coming it's way from the left.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs unloaded on Democratic critics of the Administration in an interview published today:

The White House is simmering with anger at criticism from liberals who say President Obama is more concerned with deal-making than ideological purity.

During an interview with The Hill in his West Wing office, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs blasted liberal naysayers, whom he said would never regard anything the president did as good enough

“I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs said. “I mean, it’s crazy.”

The press secretary dismissed the “professional left” in terms very similar to those used by their opponents on the ideological right, saying, “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”

Of those who complain that Obama caved to centrists on issues such as healthcare reform, Gibbs said: “They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”

The White House, constantly under fire from expected enemies on the right, has been frustrated by nightly attacks on cable news shows catering to the left, where Obama and top lieutenants like Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have been excoriated for abandoning the public option in healthcare reform; for not moving faster to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay; and for failing, so far, to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

Liberals have criticized Obama and his staff for moving to the middle and bargaining on healthcare reform, as well as the financial regulatory overhaul and even the $787 billion economic stimulus package, which some liberals said should have been larger.

Just last week, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow described Obama political adviser David Axelrod as a “human pretzel” for his explanation of the administration’s position on gay marriage. Axelrod had explained that Obama opposes same-sex marriage but favors equal benefits for partners in gay relationships.

Attacks from liberal political groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), which raises money for liberal candidates and causes, are also frustrating to the White House.

The reaction from the left has been, of course, predictable.

Atrios called it pathetic, while Jane Hamsher points out that the left is just holding Obama to his campaign promises:

Gibbs does the only thing you can do when trying to defend a record of corporatist capitulation: triangulate against your critics as extremists. But the fact is, the positions Obama has abandoned aren’t the exclusive territory of Dennis Kucinich. Standing up to the banks and the insurance companies, reducing the political influence of corporate money, defending Social Security and ending the wars are issues that are broadly popular with the American public. That’s why Obama campaigned on them in order to pave his way to the White House.

I don’t recall Obama making campaign promises to increase the defense budget and cut Social Security benefits, order the assassination of American citizens without due process, or cut sweetheart deals with the pharmaceutical industry in exchange for political patronage. Where was the bold, inspirational speech where he vowed to give AT&T immunity for operating their own private corporate spy network, tax people’s health insurance benefits, abandon gay rights and throw a party in the rose garden for Bart Stupak’s presidential signing statement? When did he promised to re-appoint Ben Bernanke, protect the bonuses of bailed out bankers and keep shoveling money at Wall Street?

Marshall Ganz was the field organizer responsible for Obama campaign programs that motivated those progressive volunteers. During the health care debate, when it was clear Obama was abandoning his campaign rhetoric on health care, he said “If Barack had campaigned on the politics of narrow self-interest, he never would have won the nomination, let alone the election.”

On that last point, I’ve got to think that Hamsher, and Ganz, are absolutely correct. The thing that energized President Obama’s campaign for the Democratic nomination wasn’t his appeal to the Democratic establishment — until the result seemed inevitable, most of those people either stood on the sidelines or were reluctantly lined up behind Hillary — it was his appeal to young voters and the left wing of the party, especially in states like Iowa where his caucus win turned what some dismissed as an internet phenomenon into a real political force. It’s not all that surprising that those same people would feel more than a little put-off considering that Obama has governed far more like Hillary Clinton would have in terms of policy than his 2008 campaign would have made it appear.

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon, meanwhile, says that Gibbs is rewriting the history of the 2008 campaign:

If he believes that, I have a bridge to sell him in the city he forgot to mention in his anti-hippie tirade. I know I sent money to the Obama campaign, as did practically every person I know who nonetheless feels like it’s our job to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire when they go off on one of their missions to sell out on the grim chance that one of those Tea Crackers waving a sign about “Obamacare” will suddenly have a change of heart. The ugly reality is that the netroots that Gibbs is generically castigating, as well as cable TV hosts like Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, are a major reason that Obama won. Good luck with those midterms distancing yourself from the people that got you elected! What’s really annoying is Gibbs is basically freaking out because Maddow and Olbermann do their jobs. Sorry that the Obama administration doesn’t have a bunch of professional sycophants like Bush did with Fox News. But it’s actually a good thing to have honest journalists who do their damn job of holding the government accountable.

While we’re mostly on opposite sides politically, I agree with Ezra Klein’s take on this:

I understand why the White House is frustrated by the criticism from the “professional left” and feels progressives should focus on all the progressive things the administration has done rather than all the things it hasn’t been able to do or interested in doing. What I don’t understand is why Robert Gibbs would voice that frustration to the press. His comments just turn this into a “story,” giving the very professional lefties whose criticism is rankling the White House another high-profile opportunity to criticize the White House.

Which is exactly what’s happened, and I imagine we’ll see this story given prominent attention on Hardball, Countdown, and The Rachel Maddow Show tonight along with, of course, the requisite gloating over at Fox News Channel.

As Klein goes on to point out, the polls show that, notwithstanding all the criticism from the liberal punditocracy, Obama is doing just fine on his left flank right now:

Gibbs has since tried to clarify his remarks calling them “inartful,” but he opened the door when he made the comments and I’ve got a feeling we’ll be hearing more about this in future.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. JKB says:

    You know what we don’t hear much about these days?  The reality-based community.  Turns out calling yourself reality-based doesn’t make reality anymore palatable.

  2. Phil The Thrill says:

    I love the comment from Marcotte about “sorry you don’t have professional sycophants like Bush did with FoxNews”. Yeah, except for almost every major news paper, 3/4 of cable news channels, and most of academia, Obama is really on his own out there. *tear*

  3. Juneau: says:

    When you can’t carry the day even when the journalists carry your water, you’re in a pretty pathetic place.
    The phrase I love the most in the article is, “corporatist capitulation.”  It illustrates progressive liberal’s fever-dream solutions for all things that are ill in the economy; if we could just properly bring corporations under the control of government, then our economy would be grand.  Of course, government policies and mandates are the primary driver that put us here in the first place.
    This kind of reasoning comes from taking drugs in your youth…. lots of drugs.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    How many of those things Hamsher implies are an Obama-flip from his campaing are truly flips?  As I recall, Obama campaigned to increase our commitment in Afghanistan, and against same sex marriage.

    I can think of three flips by Obama:
    1.  Taxing healthcare benefits;
    2.  Public Option
    3.  Closing Gitmo

    Any others?

  5. john personna says:

    Gitmo isn’t a flip, its just on an extended schedule.

  6. Dividist says:

    My question is not why his liberal base is frustrated, that is pretty obvious. My question is what exactly was Gibbs trying to do? The initial rant was not “off the cuff”. Lets get real. Gibbs is a Press Secretary. He serves up exactly nothing that is not first chewed, digested and excreted by Axelrod and Rahm. Then I read this in his artful walk back from the interview:

    “In November, America will get to choose between going back to the failed policies that got us into this mess, or moving forward with the policies that are leading us out.”

    Now I get it. They want to run against GWB again in 2010 because – you know – it worked last time. I mean – Bush was not running then… Bush is not running now… What’s the difference?

    But they really can’t run against Bush if the best and brightest in their base keep saying that Obama is acting just like Bush.

    This was all about getting them to stop making that comparison. At least until after the election.