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Liberal activists show irritation with Obama over surveillance

Activists at Netroots Nation say they're upset with Obama over surveillance and other policies, but most still seem to back him.

June 22, 2013|By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
  • President Obama with FBI nominee Jim Comey. Liberal activists are showing irritation at Obama's willingness to condone domestic surveillance programs to combat terrorism.
President Obama with FBI nominee Jim Comey. Liberal activists are showing… (Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty…)

SAN JOSE — The thousands of liberal activists and bloggers who gathered here in recent days were President Obama's base — they helped propel him to victory in 2008 and ensure that he was reelected in 2012. But for many, the luster has worn off the president, with the phone and email surveillance scandal — and Obama's defense of it — the latest in a lengthy list of disappointments.

"When he proposes cutting Social Security benefits, does nothing on jobs, does nothing on holding Wall Street accountable and now is spying on every American, that's not something he can ask people who wanted hope and change to rally around," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "There are many who spent so much time in 2008 and 2012 to elect this Democratic president, and [this] is not what we bargained for."

More than 3,000 liberal activists and bloggers came to the annual Netroots Nation gathering to strategize about ways to promote their agenda, such as expanding entitlements, increasing regulation of guns and pushing for gay marriage rights and immigration reform that grants legal status to people who are in the country without proper papers.

These annual gatherings are typically a destination for up-and-coming Democrats. Obama courted the crowd before his 2008 presidential bid, and Elizabeth Warren stopped by last year before she won her Senate seat in Massachusetts.

Obama addressed the group via videotaped message this time, and though he did not mention specific policy disagreements, he conceded that there was some tension.

"We won't always agree on everything. And I know you'll tell me when we don't," he said. "But if we work together, then I'm confident we'll keep moving this country forward."

Obama received polite, if tepid, applause from the mostly young audience. Activist Sandra Fluke appeared on stage moments later and received a heartier reception when she noted that Los Angeles leaders had just voted to ban plastic grocery bags.

The waning support for Obama is reflected in recent polling, with a new CNN survey showing the president's approval rating dropping 8 points, to 45%. Much of the erosion occurred among young people like those at the conference.

David Litton of Campbell was an ardent supporter during Obama's 2008 campaign, but he grew disillusioned and didn't vote in 2012.

"If I lived in a swing state last time, I probably still wouldn't have voted for him, even though that's a de facto half-vote for the other guy," he said. "I'm not even sure on this domestic policy, at least, they would have been very different."

But most people at the three-day conference appeared not to regret voting for Obama, given the alternative.

"Is the president perfect? No. But it's sure better than having ... Mitt Romney in there," former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean said at the conference's opening reception on Thursday.

Dean's brother Jim, chairman of Democracy for America, agreed.

"We are perfectly comfortable supporting Obama when he's defending and advocating for gun violence prevention, as we are comfortable pushing back on him on drones and Social Security," he said in an interview.

The surveillance controversy was a constant topic at the gathering. On Saturday, the crowd booed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) when she aligned herself with Obama, saying that Edward Snowden broke the law when he revealed classified information about a formerly secret program. Many at the conference heaped praise on Snowden, saying his actions revealed governmental overreach.

One man carried a sign that said, "Obama said he would listen to us — we didn't know he meant literally. Shame on him." Another carried a sign that read, "Surveillance. Obama = Cheney."

Pelosi acknowledged that many disagreed with her about Snowden.

"I feel sad that this had to come down to this," she said. "I know some of you attribute heroic status to that action, but you don't have the responsibility for the security of the United States. Those of us who do have to strike a different balance."

Pelosi argued that there had been greater oversight of such programs during the Obama administration than under President George W. Bush, and she said that she expected Obama to reveal more information soon about the proceedings of the secret court that oversees the surveillance program.

"People … are saying this is the fourth term of George Bush," Pelosi said. "Absolutely, positively not so."

Social Security was another point of disagreement for the activists. Speakers repeatedly faulted Obama and many Democratic leaders for being amenable to cutting the program. They said the matter should be a litmus test for candidates and that members of Congress who do not toe the line "deserve to be disciplined."

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