Obama Makes Liberals Antsy

Posted May 20, 2009 at 6:48pm

Some of President Barack Obama’s strongest Congressional supporters — particularly blacks, Hispanics and gays — are becoming increasingly impatient with his decision to delay action on festering hot-button issues.

And they are upping the pressure — and their rhetoric — on the new president to add more to his already ambitious agenda.

“It’s time for people to organize and make the president focus on their issues,— said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Obama has put off dealing with such emotionally charged issues as immigration reform, gays in the military and the genocide in Darfur to avoid bogging down his larger agenda, which is focused on the economy, health care and energy.

The president’s team and Democratic leaders are keen to avoid the mistakes of former President Bill Clinton, whose first year in office quickly turned politically disastrous. Clinton struggled as his health care and energy plans met internecine feuding, and he tripped up trying to end the ban on gays in the military and on conflict in Somalia.

But as more gays are fired, more immigrants are deported and the genocide in Darfur rolls on without strong intervention from Obama, the liberal discontent with the new president is starting to grow.

The CBC launched a campaign of fasting to increase focus on Darfur on Tuesday after actress-activist Mia Farrow complained that Obama had done little on the issue beyond naming a special envoy.

At the news conference, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) demanded an immediate meeting with the president. “Don’t you think that will kick it up a notch?— he asked.

CBC member and House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Chairman Donald Payne (D-N.J.) said Obama should personally make the issue of Darfur, as well as aid for the struggling government of Somalia, an urgent priority, and he said that the State Department had been slow in getting its people in place.

“Back in my district, schoolchildren are asking, What is happening in Darfur?’ and I can’t really give them an answer I’d like to give,— he said.

Every day that aid workers are kept by the government of Sudan from the millions struggling to survive means more death, Payne said. “I know there are a lot of other issues over at the White House, but we feel this is just as important.—

Hispanic lawmakers have also taken Obama to task for slow-walking comprehensive immigration reform, and they undertook a nationwide tour aimed at pressuring him to act.

That campaign secured a June 8 meeting with Obama that was announced Wednesday.

Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) praised Obama for being “clear and strong on the issue,— but she said the CHC will continue to push for action on immigration reform this year, given the difficulty of pursuing the incendiary topic in an election year.

“We understand that he has been dealing with many issues … but we also understand the politics. It is going to be more difficult next year.—

Velázquez also issued a thinly veiled warning to inaction: “For those who are looking to expand the ranks of the party, the Hispanic community will remember this moment,— she said.

Gay rights groups, meanwhile, are growing disenchanted with Obama’s failure to take action to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a campaign promise stuck way down his to-do list.

The issues stir up strong emotions among Obama’s base. Yet wading into them now also could be polarizing and distracting at a time when the president is enjoying sky-high approval ratings and tackling an already lengthy legislative agenda.

Ellison said Obama shouldn’t be given a pass just because the issues are challenging.

“Probably no politician wants to walk right into the jaws of an issue where probably half of the people are going to hate him,— he acknowledged. But, Ellison said, “You need urgent, persistent activism. … You cannot expect that the president, given all of the issues surrounding him, is going to remember you.—

Ellison said immigration reform, for example, shouldn’t be kicked down the road.

“If that’s fallen down on his radar screen, we’ve got to push it back up. Darfur, too. I’m pleased he named a special envoy, but that’s not nearly enough.—

Ellison said Obama “has the capacity to deal with all of these issues — immigration reform, Darfur, health care, energy, all of it. And getting out of Iraq, for that matter, and bringing a rational policy to Afghanistan. I think he can do it all.—

But others aren’t so sure.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), one of three openly gay Members of Congress, said she understands the impatience the gay community feels because she feels it herself. But, she added: “I also have to be pragmatic. We have to do it right.—

Gay rights groups are pressuring Obama on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, with the high-profile dismissals of Iraq War veterans Lt. Dan Choi and fighter pilot Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach sparking petitions and protests.

But Baldwin said pushing too hard too fast could backfire as it did in 1993 when Clinton was forced to settle for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

“We took a step back,— she said. “You have to make sure you are going to win. We really have to take things one step at a time and make sure we have the votes.—

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) praised Obama for focusing first on issues where a consensus can be found among Democrats, including massive endeavors such as energy and health care legislation, and earlier this year on the stimulus package and the budget.

“A lot of those interest groups are predictably frustrated, because it’s the first time there has been a Democratic president in a while,— he said. “That applies to gay groups, the CBC, the Hispanic Caucus.—

But Davis said many of those groups’ priorities can be dealt with later in Obama’s term, and pointed to the Clinton example.

“You don’t have to guess what happened with the Clinton administration. You can look back and see that gays in the military and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell sidetracked part of their agenda.—