Why Won’t Obama Go to Big Liberal Conferences?

Ralph Nader sent the Monthly a copy of a letter he wrote President Obama, asking an interesting question: why doesn’t the president consider attending the Take Back the American Dream conference (which is coming up soon here in DC)?

Can you imagine President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney refusing year after year to go a few blocks from the White House and address the largest congregation of supporters, Republicans, conservatives, corporatists – call them what you will – and getting away with it?

Well, that is what you and Vice President Joe Biden have been doing to the largest annual gathering of liberal politicos and activists in Washington, D.C. overseen by your faithful supporter, Robert Borosage.

The “Borosage Convention” brings together several thousand people over the course of its three days with its workshops, plenary sessions and other events. Why do you not only decline to appear – as you do by contrast for business conventions and media extravaganzas at the same or nearby hotels – but you so signal your refusal that Mr. Borosage et al’s “Take Back the American Dream Conference,” June 18 to 20, does not even tender a public invitation for fear of having an embarrassment being interpreted by observers and reporters as a rebuke.

The reasoning for this probably has something to do with what happened last year at Netroots Nation:

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer’s appearance here at the Netroots Nation gathering was expected to be rough. But a chorus of boos from President Barack Obama’s progressive base? …

Dissatisfaction among liberals is nothing new for the White House. Liberals have griped that the health care overhaul did not include a public option and that the economic stimulus law should have inclueed more spending. That lack of enthusiasm for Democrats contributed to the party’s trouncing in last year’s midterm elections.

Broadly speaking, I’d say this is about the hack gap on the left. If we imagined an alternate reality where there was a Republican president with some kind of vociferous critique of him from the right (akin to the critique of Obama from the left, led by the likes of Greenwald et al), conference organizers would make absolutely sure that the critics would be excluded, and if they somehow snuck in, they’d be hustled off by security in a jiffy. Thus they could have a positive, exciting conference to build enthusiasm and support, featuring their biggest names, without having any naysayers harshing their mellow.

Liberals wouldn’t stand for that sort of oppression. However, as the WSJ post points out, the Democrats’ enthusiasm gap hurt him badly in the midterms. If he can’t get the base fired up, it might cost him the election, and figuring out some way to have a presence at the conference might help. For my money simply showing up himself, instead of sending a flunky, would probably be so exciting that any critics wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise. Or, the specter of President Romney might do the job for him.

(Or Obama could have, you know, not renewed the Patriot Act, avoided drone strikes on American citizens, and not prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. Just sayin.)

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.