Tensions within the Democratic Party were on display in the living rooms of Massachusetts, where liberal activists watched President Barack Obama's State of the Union address with skepticism.
Tensions within the Democratic Party were on display in the living rooms of Massachusetts, where liberal activists watched President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address with skepticism.
Like many in the party’s far-left wing, those who enjoyed pizza and beer at a Boston-area watch party Tuesday night have been disappointed by the president’s performance while facing a divided Congress. Some offered positive marks for his speech, but said that it did little to resurrect their once-passionate enthusiasm for the nation’s top Democrat.
“I think he offered some good things,” said party host Josh Tauber, a software engineer and Democratic activist who volunteered for both of Obama’s campaigns. “I would get more excited if I believed those things would happen.”
Liberal leaders across the nation shared Tauber’s mixed response, expressing optimism about Obama’s focus on economic inequality, but also frustration with a president some think hasn’t fought hard enough for liberal policies on health care, taxes and Wall Street reform. Their sentiments underscore a lingering tension between moderate and liberal Democrats pressing to shape the party’s priorities during Obama’s final term.
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The dozen or so activists gathered in Tauber’s living room hope Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will play a key role in that debate, even if she honors her recent pledge not to run for president in 2016.
After just a year in the Senate she has emerged as a force in Democratic politics, with an enthusiastic national following from the party’s left flank. Her popularity, in Massachusetts and in Washington, is based on longstanding, aggressive support for the kinds of populist economic appeals on minimum wage, equal pay for women and affordable education that Obama outlined in his speech.
“It’s a big step in the right direction that President Obama is sounding more like Elizabeth Warren,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a Washington-based liberal group. “It’s not too little too late, but it’s certainly late in his presidency that Obama is recognizing this economic populist tide.”
The president declared that upward economic mobility has stalled for millions of Americans, and he challenged a deeply divided Congress to restore the nation’s belief in “opportunity for all” — while vowing to act on his own “wherever and whenever” he can. He outlined an array of executive actions, including raising the minimum wage for new federal contracts, helping the long-term unemployed find work and expanding job-training programs.
In a written statement, Warren said Obama “laid out an encouraging plan” and “showed he is ready to take action now to help level the playing field for hard-working families.”
“Even so,” she continued, “we need to do more together to ensure that all of our kids have a chance at a quality, affordable education and real opportunities for success.”
The president’s recent job performance ratings have been lackluster, particularly among liberals.
In an AP-GfK poll this month, just 31 percent of Americans said they would rate Obama as an outstanding or above average president, down 6 percentage points since his 2012 re-election. A quarter described him as average, and 42 percent said he’s below average or poor.
After his 2012 re-election, 65 percent of Democrats said he was outstanding or above average. This month, just 58 percent feel that way.
The president’s decline stems largely from a drop within his own party — self-described liberal Democrats most notably. Among liberals, 77 percent said in November 2012 that he was outstanding or above average. That number dropped to 65 percent in January, while moderate or conservative Democrats, Republicans and independents have held generally steady.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a liberal favorite and former presidential contender, says he’s “overwhelmingly not satisfied” with the federal government in general, but doesn’t blame Obama because he’s up against “the worst Congress in history.” Dean cheered the president’s push to bypass congressional Republicans whenever necessary.
“The president is now going to do what he should do, which is do the best he can without them since they’re useless,” he said of Congress.
Dean’s brother Jim Dean, chairman of the liberal advocacy group Democracy for America, offered a harsher tone: “The speech’s bold message is a strong first step, but the country and progressives expect the president to deliver on his promises.”
Back in Tauber’s living room, there was no applause and few smiles after Obama finished his address.
“It was a typical mainstream centrist speech,” Deborah Shah, who leads the group Progressive Massachusetts, said as she headed for the door. “I’m generally underwhelmed.”
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.