A couple of hours before President Obama offered a boffo revival of his 2008 campaign persona during a boisterous rally at the University of Wisconsin, Sen. Bernie Sanders was analyzing why the president was in a political pickle in the first place.
Sanders, the independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, speaks warmly of Obama. But unlike the man in the White House, Sanders actually is a socialist and believes devoutly in grass-roots, class-based politics. And it is his faith in the power of a progressive movement organized around a clear set of commitments that lies at the heart of Sanders's critique of where the president went wrong.
"Think back to two years ago," Sanders said during an interview in the only Senate office decorated with a medallion of Eugene V. Debs, the legendary American Socialist leader. "There were rallies involving eighty thousand to one hundred thousand. Obama was running the best campaign I've seen in my lifetime—and I'm pretty critical."
"Why are we where we are today?" he continued. "The most serious mistake the president made was not, in a sense, continuing the thrust of his campaign, and forgetting all he accomplished."
Sanders does not discount what Obama and congressional Democrats achieved through the economic stimulus, health care, and financial reform. But he argues that by replacing a mobilizing approach and clear progressive goals with an insider strategy aimed at compromising with a few moderate Republican senators, Obama deactivated his own enthusiasts. These are the very people the president was trying to motivate in Madison.
"While Obama and the Democrats have a large number of achievements, it was not enough," said Sanders. "We needed to be bolder."
Yet Sanders will do all he can to help Democrats win this fall, and therein lies the paradox for progressives. It's true that many on the left are frustrated with White House calls for them to buck up and grow up. Jane Hamsher, who blogs at Firedoglake, sees the administration's taunts as setting up the Left as a "fall guy" if Democrats lose.
But progressives keenly understand how much their aspirations would be set back if an increasingly right-wing Republican Party wins one or both houses this fall.
That's why liberal blogs are already rallying behind scores of Democratic candidates. It's why "the enthusiasm gap" about this year's election is slowly closing. It's why labor and civil-rights groups have organized their One Nation Working Together march this Saturday. (And, yes, it's another sign of Fox News's continuing ability to set the mainstream media agenda that you have heard far less about this rally than you did about Glenn Beck's.)
And it's why the polls have begun to show signs of a modest Democratic revival. Buried in the eighth paragraph of a Wednesday Wall Street Journal story on its survey with NBC News was this fact: When likely voters were asked which party they wanted to control Congress, Republicans led Democrats by three points, but that was down from a nine-point GOP lead just a month ago. Could the plates beneath this election be shifting?
Obama's trip to Madison was therefore more than a walk down memory lane. It reflected the White House's realization that Sanders is right that there is no substitute for a president making a coherent argument, taking on opponents who are eviscerating him daily, and acknowledging his dependence on those who brought him to office. "I need you fired up!" he declared in a stump line that could not have been more accurate. "You can't lose heart!"
The president was not reluctant to draw class lines or ideological distinctions. He cast Republican support for a $700-billion tax reduction for the wealthy against the cuts it could force in Head Start and student loans. He criticized his opponents' "blind faith in the market" and the idea of letting "corporations play by their own rules."
Thus the irony: A president who largely disdained a mobilizing strategy for his first year and a half in office has returned to his community-organizer roots to try to salvage an election. Here's the further irony: He has a real chance of pulling it off, which leads to a question. If Obama succeeds, will he continue to keep his supporters engaged and "fired up," as Sanders suggests he should? Or will he go back to an insider strategy that helped bring him to the brink of this precipice?
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).