How we got here

The Obama Presidency interrupted a more than 30 year sequence of defeats for America's liberals and, boy, has that made the progressive elites angry. After the Carter Presidency which saw deregulation as the major domestic policy initiative, vainly attempted to keep the Shah of Iran in power, and jump-started Al Qaeda as an anti-communist "ally", Reagan won in 1980 and 1984, then Bush won in 1988. Clinton's 1992 and 1996 victories produced the following significant policy developments:
  1. Balancing the budget by increasing taxes - much of it on the middle class and poor.
  2. Republican Welfare "reform" that increased poverty and devastated inner cities
  3. The NAFTA "free trade" agreement that helped deeply damage the industrial base of the United States and to increase the relative size and economic and political power of the FIRE Sector (Finance, Insurance, Real-Estate) at the expense of manufacturing.
  4. Legislation institutionalizing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation: Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) and the Defense of Marriage Law (DOMA).
  5. A total defeat on health reform.
  6. Consolidation of a corporate/right-wing media - Clinton's term saw Rush Limbaugh on Armed Forces Radio, the establishment of the Fox network, the build out of Citadel and Sinclair and the other right wing radio networks, Disney's takeover of ABC and the elimination of the remaining liberal radio talk shows - Jim Hightower's audience of 2 million was not enough to keep him on the air after he attacked Disney's labor practices.
  7. Massive expansion of the "drug war" including major military intervention in Columbia.
  8. Loss of the Senate and the House to Republican control.
  9. Repeal of banking regulation, notably regulation of derivatives trading and Glass-Steagall also leading to increased political and economic power for Wall Street.
If there was was a single major liberal policy victory during Clinton's term in office beyond SCHIP, I'm not aware of it (thanks to Greg Hawes in comments) Note that the successful Republican campaign to disenfranchise black voters in Florida, the campaign that "won" the 2000 election for Bush, took place while the Democrats ran the Department of Justice and were in charge of civil rights enforcement. Clinton was followed by 8 years of Bush II, a period of despair and failure unparalleled in US history since the Rutherford P. Hayes administration. In the two years since Obama took the Presidency we have seen:
  1. Fair pay bills/Lilly Ledbetter
  2. Several major wins on health care including SCHIP expansion, a massive build-out of Public Health Clinics, Federal regulation of Health Insurance company "medical loss rates" and other insurance issues as part of a comprehensive reform of Health Insurance.
  3. Repeal of DADT.
  4. Tax reforms to increase progressivity of the tax system.
  5. The largest public investment in infrastructure, by far, in 50 years.
  6. Saving the US Auto industry via a rescue that reversed tradition by saving labor union assets over bondholder assets.
  7. A huge public investment in green manufacturing including the creation of an advanced battery industry.
  8. The consumer financial protection bureau and mechanisms for making bondholders/stockholders/executives pay when big financial firms crash (thanks mem)
  9. Revival of law enforcement in Civil Rights, Environmental Protection, Occupational Safety and Health, and Labor Rights.
And yet, the chorus of despair from the progressive elites has been deafening. By "progressive elites" I mean the Upper West Side and similar upper income echo chambers, the mostly coastal white and upper income "netroots", the lobbying organizations in Washington, and the liberal foundations, and the "left" media. The success of Obama critics in the media is not at all surprising. Even Politico was willing to explain:
Polls show most self-described liberals still strongly support Obama. But an elite group of commentators on the left — many of whom are unhappy with him and are rewarded with more attention by being critical of a fellow Democrat — has a disproportionate influence on perceptions.
The disconnect between the progressive elites and the rank-and-file of the Democratic Party is so stark that even the smarter and more reality conscious members of the commenting class find it hard to relate
Wait. Nearly 70% of liberal Democrats support the president's tax deal with the Republicans? Can anyone find one of them in nature? I haven't seen or read anything from any liberal that is supportive of the deal beyond the most grudging acknowledgment that the deal is better than expected. [...] No, I do not believe that 70% of liberals support the deal.
All the liberal Democrats I know were positive about the compromise that saw unemployment insurance extended for more than a year. The elites objection to the tax compromise was primarily on the grounds that it would increase the budget deficit - an issue not previously known to be a liberal priority. Of course, Democratic administrations have not been anywhere near as careless with public money as Republicans but the progressive elite spent much of the summer castigating the President for appointing a deficit reduction commission and making a point of how counter-productive deficit reduction could be during a recession. Suddenly, like a flock of pigeons wheeling in air, the entire progressive blogosphere and media presence swung around and began despairing about the deficit! The sheer hostility of the progressive elites to President Obama's administration has been accompanied by a cease fire with the right. In fact, Jane Hamsher said as much in an essay attacking the health care reform bill.
There is an enormous, rising tide of populism that crosses party lines in objection to the Senate bill. We opposed the bank bailouts, the AIG bonuses, the lack of transparency about the Federal Reserve, “bailout” Ben Bernanke, and the way the Democrats have used their power to sell the country’s resources to secure their own personal advantage, just as the libertarians have. In fact, we’ve worked together with them to oppose these things. What we agree on: both parties are working against the interests of the public, the only difference is in the messaging.
Here is Congresswoman Barbara Lee on the same law.
"Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were strengthened by the power of prayer to forge ahead with clarity of purpose, courage and determination, undeterred by the losing hateful rhetoric and threatening tactics of anti-health care protesters. "Tonight, my colleagues and I cast an historic vote to improve the health and wellness of millions of Americans who suffer because they are uninsured and under-insured and because of massive gaps in our nation’s health care system. "We cast our votes for all those people who deserve health care but simply can’t afford it. We cast our votes for our senior citizens who will see their prescription drug costs go down. We cast our votes for our children and grandchildren, so that they can live longer, fuller and healthier lives. We cast our votes in the memory of those people who didn’t have preventive care and died prematurely. "The Congressional Black Caucus worked tirelessly to make sure that this bill holds insurance companies accountable and included a number of cost-saving provisions. We were vocal advocates for provisions in the bill to combat health disparities, illnesses and diseases that disproportionately affect our community. "To those who suffer from those health disparities, our vote tonight carries significance similar to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in that it fulfills a dream that has been elusive for far too long and for far too many Americans. "This bill is a major first step in establishing the foundation for a universally accessible and affordable health care system for all. But it is victory not only for our constituents, but for all Americans because it will make us a stronger and healthier nation.”
Think about what this means: the progressive blogs were siding with the tea party republicans against a health reform bill that was lauded by the Chair of the Black Congressional Caucus, the only Congress member to vote against the war in Afghanistan, as a victory that "carries significance similar to the passage of the Civil Rights Act". What we are seeing here is a realignment in party structure as the upper-income progressives find a home with the so-called "libertarians", the Republicans solidify as a corporate/Confederate alliance, and the Democrats continue as the only vehicle for the hopes of social justice and opportunity that motivated the civil rights and union movements and the non-ideological "pragmatic" middle class - the people who would generally agree with Dewey if he had written in accessible English. The continued confusion that allows the progressive-libertarians to speak as if they were the voice of the more liberal wing of Democratic party causes a great deal of damage and demoralization. The progressive elite is not the "base" of the Democratic party no matter how much they may insist otherwise. They are not "liberal" in the traditional American sense either. If American liberalism has a base it is in the battles for civil rights and economic rights (opportunity). Neither of these interest the progressive elite.