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What's Behind Obama's "Hippie Punching"?

Five weeks ahead of the congressional midterm elections, the Obama administration and liberal activists agree they need to rally the Democratic base. But instead, they're caught pointing fingers at each other for the depressed mood among Democratic voters.

President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had some harsh words for the liberal base this week, telling them to "buck up" and "stop whining" about what the administration has yet to accomplish. It's as if the administration has been trying to give liberal voters a guilt trip as a way to get them out to the polls.

This wasn't the first time the White House has clashed with the left -- the tension between the president and his core constituents came to a head last week during a conference call in which a liberal blogger accused the administration of "hippie punching."

Yet even as liberal activists and bloggers warn the White House that its attitude is only discouraging the Democrats' strongest supporters, the administration has not shied away from taking digs at its critics on the left. Some on the left say that the president and his administration are only speaking the truth -- and his willingness to buck his base proves his strong leadership. Others, however, contend that the president is simply interested in preserving his presidency and is passing on the blame for what is sure to be a bad November for Democrats.

The dissent between the White House and the left stems from the list of progressive agenda items Mr. Obama has yet to check off -- such as ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell policy," removing all troops from Iraq or Afghanistan, and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The White House, meanwhile, is emphatically pointing to what it has accomplished -- passing a landmark health care bill, removing combat troops from Iraq, reforming the student loan industry, enacting an enormous stimulus package, and so on.

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"I understand why there would be a fair amount of frustration at the White House," Democratic Strategist and CBS News analyst Jamal Simmons told the Hotsheet. "To face as much criticism as he has despite the fact he passed a health care bill Democrats have wanted for 40 years could be pretty frustrating."

Simmons said that the hand-wringing among liberal activists doesn't match the attitude among everyday Democratic voters.

"There's a little bit of a disconnect between the intelligentsia and the people who will benefit the most from the president's policies," he said. "Most of the people advocating single payer health care actually have health care. The fact that the president covered 95 percent of Americans with health care versus 100 percent -- that's a win."

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the president's health care reforms remain unpopular, and a recent Associated Press poll found that "Americans who think the law should have done more outnumber those who think the government should stay out of health care by 2-to-1." The president's supporters say that Democrats passed the strongest bill possible, given the partisan atmosphere in Washington.

The White House is arguing that whether or not liberals think Mr. Obama could have pushed for a more robust health care bill, they need to get behind him now if they want Democrats to maintain majorities .

"Some of it may be venting," Simmons said of the administration's critique of the left. "But some of it is truth telling -- Democrats do need to buck up. In order to win, everybody needs to get on the same page."

Jane Hamsher, co-founder of the liberal blog FireDogLake and one of administration's strongest critics from the left, is not convinced. She argues that the White House's digs at the left have nothing to do with rallying voters this November.

"This isn't about GOTV [get-out-the-vote]," she writes on FireDogLake. "It's about setting up a narrative for who will take the blame for a disastrous election. And once again, the White House doesn't care if they make matters worse in order to deflect responsibility from Obama."

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She points to a number of reports from mainstream media outlets of the president distancing himself from losing Democrats, such as Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

"Insulating the President from blame for electoral losses is paramount, even at the risk of triggering the loss," Hamsher writes.

Taking a cue from an ABC News affiliate headline from May that read, "White House distances Obama from Specter," Hamsher writes that current headlines could read, "Obama Distances Himself From Democratic Voters."

This isn't the first time Mr. Obama has jostled with the partisan left, however. In 2005, then-Sen. Obama wrote an open letter on the liberal blog Daily Kos. Much as the president is now beseeching liberals to "buck up," he urged liberals in 2005 to stop attacking Democrats who voted to confirm Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. He wrote:

There is one way, over the long haul, to guarantee the appointment of judges that are sensitive to issues of social justice, and that is to win the right to appoint them by recapturing the presidency and the Senate. And I don't believe we get there by vilifying good allies, with a lifetime record of battling for progressive causes, over one vote or position. I am convinced that, our mutual frustrations and strongly-held beliefs notwithstanding, the strategy driving much of Democratic advocacy, and the tone of much of our rhetoric, is an impediment to creating a workable progressive majority in this country.

Portions of the president's letter sounded as if they could have been written this week: "When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive 'checklist,' then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems. We are tying them up in a straightjacket and forcing them into a conversation only with the converted."

Simmons said that Mr. Obama is one of the few Democrats with enough credibility to occasionally push back against his base -- and he argued Republicans would be better off with a comparable figure.

"The Republican Party could stand to have a similar figure who would do that when it comes to the Tea Party," he said. "Someone who has credibility with that segment of the conservative movement should stand up and let those folks know when they've gone too far. Any Republican who hopes to win the broad middle will have to be someone who can capture the spirit of the Tea Party but let them know he's not prisoner to that."

It may be the case that such a figure could emerge as the 2012 elections gear up.

Hamsher argues, however, that it's not a strategy anyone running this year would employ: "Notice that nobody actually running for office is wagging their finger at voters and scolding them like a bunch of children," she writes.

Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for You can read more of her posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.
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