Providence, R.I. — If elections are won partly on the enthusiasm of a candidate’s base, Barack Obama is in trouble. Netroots Nation, the annual left-wing conference for bloggers and activists, held its seventh annual rally here this weekend. The skies were sunny outside, but there was clearly a cloud hanging over attendees inside the cavernous Rhode Island Convention Center.
It wasn’t only last Tuesday’s jarring defeat of public-sector unions in Wisconsin, or President Obama’s refusal to campaign in person against Governor Scott Walker — or unease that the Supreme Court may be only weeks away from sweeping much or all of Obamacare onto the ash heap of history. On Friday, in the middle of the conference, President Obama famously declared that “the private sector is doing fine,” calling into question his campaign’s basic competence in getting out a coherent message.
Indeed, enthusiasm for Obama was decidedly absent from this year’s gathering. Administration officials weren’t invited to attend (Valerie Jarrett and others have appeared in the past), and President Obama limited his role to an unpublicized surprise video shown to delegates late on Saturday, when many people had already left. “Change is hard, but we’ve seen that it’s possible, as long as you’re willing to keep up that fight, I’ll be right there with you,” Obama offered. Not exactly a stirring call to arms, and the tepid applause his video garnered can’t have pleased Team Obama.
Van Jones — the former Obama administration “green jobs” czar who was forced to resign from the White House after his radical past was exposed — did his best to follow the Obama video with some fiery rhetoric. “We do not have the right to sit here and feel sorry for ourselves and let these people destroy our country,” he yelled.
But after another burst of obligatory fearmongering about the Tea Party — “When they get power, they use it to decimate us!” — even he calmed down and acknowledged that these were tough times for the Left. He claimed the union recall in Wisconsin had been a “potential national breakthrough” but admitted it had fallen short. The local forces “fought alone,” he said. “Let’s be honest now. We’re all friends here.” At that point, someone in the audience shouted out, “Where was Obama?”
“Where were the national Democrats?” Jones replied. “And where were a lot of us?” The questions lingered in the room, and no one addressed them further.
What participants did address — frequently — was their dissatisfaction with the fact that elected Democrats have failed to deliver on the progressive agenda. During a panel discussion on Latino issues, Gaby Pacheco weighed in. A liberal crusader working to pass the DREAM Act (which would allow the children of illegal aliens to pay in-state tuition at U.S. colleges and also give them a path to citizenship), Pacheco was openly disdainful of the Obama White House. She pointed out that more people (some 400,000 last year) have been deported in the Obama years than at any other time in U.S. history. She compared minority groups to people trapped in abusive relationships they refuse to leave, no matter how bad things get — and in her analogy, the abusive partner was Obama. “That, I feel, is the situation that we’re in,” she told the crowd. “And it’s very hard for a lot of people to stand up to their abusers and say, enough, no more.”
Another panel featured four local liberal activists discussing the problems of the host state for Netroots Nation: “When Democrats Aren’t Democrats: The Story of Rhode Island.” Kate Brown, the executive director of the liberal group Ocean State Action, warned that progressives are in a minority on “a lot of issues” they care about, including gay marriage, expanding abortion rights, raising tax rates, and even implementing Obamacare. “We cut tax rates for the wealthy,” she asserted. “So when they tell us there’s no money [for programs], they are lying! There’s lots of money.”
Her grievances took no account of the fact that Republicans are a minority in the Rhode Island legislature and hold no statewide elected offices. Rhode Island sends only Democrats to Congress. Steven Brown, the executive director of the state’s ACLU, pointed out that Rhode Island passed into law a tough voter-ID bill last year; he noted that the bill’s chief sponsors were Rhode Island’s only African-American state senator and the leader of the Latino caucus in the state house.
Of course, it wasn’t all doom and gloom at Netroots Nation. There was no shortage of bravado and chest-thumping among liberals who are convinced they are the wave of the future. But having attended most of the Netroots Nation gatherings, I observed many fewer victory jigs than in previous years.
Indeed, when the Daily Beast asked Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas if he was worried about the level of despair at the conference, his reply was blunt: “The administration should be worried about the level of despair here.” Team Obama has only five months to fire up its base. If the White House hopes to win, it must inspire the die-hards to do much more than shuffle to the ballot box and cast a grudging vote for the incumbent.
— John Fund is the national-affairs columnist for NRO.