Signs of Liberal Discontent With Obama

20 May 2009

President Barack Obama remains popular in U.S. public opinion polls. But there are signs that his normally strong support from liberal Democrats may be fraying a bit over national security issues.

Obama's decisions on Bush-era military run tribunals create controversy

Pres. Barack Obama finishes a statement to reporters during a meeting at the White House, 20 May 2009
Pres. Barack Obama finishes a statement to reporters during a meeting at the White House, 20 May 2009
Mr. Obama came into office on a promise of change, and some of his early decisions clearly pleased liberal supporters, especially his move to close the terror detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But in recent weeks some groups on the political left have expressed disappointment with the president.

For example, Mr. Obama's decision to maintain Bush-era military run tribunals, or commissions for terror suspects at Guantanamo drew a negative reaction from Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union. He appeared on CBS television.

"I think the president is being ill-informed," he said. "I think if the president had spent as much time as I have in those military commissions at Guantanamo, several weeks I sat there in the back of that courtroom, he would see the debacle of justice."

Guantanamo stays as a thorny issue

Other groups are disappointed with the president's reluctance to support an independent commission to probe whether any U.S. laws were violated by the enhanced interrogation program approved by the Bush administration.

Linda Gustitus is with a group called the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which wants a full accounting of the treatment of terror suspects during the Bush administration.

"Because we can't be confident that the United States will never use torture again unless the American people, including people of faith, believe it is wrong to do so under all circumstances," said Gustitus.

There are even rumblings of discontent among some liberal Democrats in Congress who question the president's decision to send more U.S. troops to fight in Afghanistan and to gradually draw down U.S. forces in Iraq.

"Don't tell the American people that the war will end when there are plans to leave 50,000 troops in Iraq," says Kucinich

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio
Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich lost out to Mr. Obama in last year's race for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

"Don't tell the American people you are ending the war by continuing to fund the war," said Kucinich. "Don't tell the American people that the war will end when there are plans to leave 50,000 troops in Iraq."

For his part, Mr. Obama is urging patience and cautions supporters that real change can take time.

"I'm proud of what we've achieved, but I'm not content," said Mr. Obama. "I'm pleased with our progress, but I'm not satisfied."

Reporters have also brought up the issue with White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Political analysts say that some strains between President Obama and liberal supporters were inevitable given the pent-up demand for change after eight years of a conservative Republican administration.

Obama supporters discuss potential discontent

But expert John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute says there is the potential for political discontent on the left to grow in the months ahead.

"Some of the problems might be in his own party. If things go well, there will be no problems. At this point he is a popular president," said Fortier. "But if two years down the road, even if things are stabilized in Afghanistan, it is not clear that there is some great exit strategy and it may be a longer term problem keeping troops there. That might not be the most popular thing for his base."

Other analysts believe Mr. Obama has strong political reasons for maintaining a moderate course on foreign policy and national security issues.

"If he is seen as taking an ideological approach, that will undermine the notion that he is a different kind of president and that he is a centrist," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center in Washington. "And centrism is in. He was elected by a lot of different kinds of people but more so by the center of the electorate than any other president in recent memory."

In the short term, Mr. Obama's approach may be paying political dividends. A new Democracy Corps poll found that 64 percent of those asked approve of his approach to national security issues.

But experts say it is possible that liberal discontent could grow in the months ahead as the president considers whether to compromise with Republicans over issues like health care reform and combating global warming.