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The defining conflict of the Obama presidency is not between the White House and Republicans. It’s not between the White House and the Tea Party. It’s between President Obama and the left, specifically between Obama and progressive opinion-makers and online activists.

It’s no coincidence that the angriest barbs from this White House have been directed at the netroots. And it’s no surprise that the media and political establishment – along with a vitriolic cadre of Obama supporters – are mortified by the principled left, simultaneously dismissing them as bit players and accusing them of being ingrates who are damaging Obama’s reelection prospects (hint: you can’t be both).

I’ve repeated a version of this thesis for years: a handful of influential progressive opinion-makers are canaries in the coal mine, propounding and presaging views and arguments later adopted by rank and file Democrats.

It’s been that way since the dawn of the blogosphere and has only been magnified with Twitter and other online platforms. Just as the netroots laid the groundwork for the eventual downfall of the Bush presidency, the sharp, insistent, principled critiques of President Obama emanating from the left on civil liberties, women’s reproductive rights, gay rights, the environment, secrecy, executive power, the economy, war, among other issues, have had a profoundly outsized effect on perceptions of this president.

Recent polls (including Gallup, which shows a double-digit decline among liberals) indicate significant erosion of support for Obama among groups who propelled him to victory in 2008, reinforcing the idea that reality is catching up with netroots criticism. This crumbling of support is typically attributed by pundits to the poor economy, but the problem is more complicated: it’s the poor economy coupled with the sense (fair or unfair) that Barack Obama has no convictions, no moral center, nothing for which he will take an unwavering stand.

That perception of a lack of  convictions can’t be attributed solely to attacks from the right, since they can be discounted as partisan. It’s when the left makes that argument that conventional wisdom congeals.

President Obama’s progressive detractors have continually warned that appearances of weakness and capitulation will become cemented in the public view – that it is politically smarter and morally better to fight for core Democratic values than to be guided by pollsters obsessed with faux bipartisanship, wooing independents voters, and mollifying the radical right. They have warned that those coveted indies are far more likely to respond to a visceral sense of a person’s willingness to fight for unshakable beliefs than any policies or ideological positions.

The impact of these critics on the left will continue to resonate into the 2012 election and despite dashed hopes and demoralization among progressive activists, they, more than any other group, hold the president’s political fate in their hands.

A year ago I posted How a handful of liberal bloggers are bringing down the Obama presidency. I’ll repost excerpts below, since they expand on the case I’m making…

The cauldron of opinion that churns incessantly on blogs, Twitter, social networks, and in the elite media generates the storylines that filter across the national and local press, providing the fodder for public opinion and ultimately determining conventional wisdom.  Typically, countervailing left-right narratives create enough tension to prevent the public from rapidly congealing around a single view. However, in some cases (Bush with Katrina, Obama on health care), left and right come to agree that a political leader is on the wrong track. It is this merging of left-right opinion that has damaged Obama. He can sustain relentless attacks from the right – it’s what everyone expects – but when the left joins in, the bottom drops out. That’s why opinion-shapers in the liberal blogosphere exert inordinate influence over Obama’s fortunes. And from the growing alarm at the White House, it’s clear they know it.

…It was a given the right would try to destroy Obama’s presidency. It was a given Republicans would be obstructionists. It was a given the media would run with sensationalist stories. It was a given there would be a natural dip from the euphoric highs of the inauguration. Obama’s team was prepared to ride out the trough(s). But they were not prepared for a determined segment of the left to ignore party and focus on principle, to ignore happy talk and demand accountability.

As president, Obama has done much good and has achieved a number of impressive legislative victories. He is a smart, thoughtful and disciplined man. He has a wonderful family. His staff (many of whom I’ve worked with in past campaigns) are good and decent people trying to improve their country and working tirelessly under extreme stress. But that doesn’t mean progressives should set aside the things they’ve fought for their entire lives. It doesn’t mean they should stay silent if they think the White House is undermining the progressive cause.

…Obama and Democrats have undermined their own moral authority by continuing some of Bush’s’ most egregious policies. Everything flows from the public’s belief that you stand for something. The most impressive legislative wins lose their force if people become convinced you’ll sell out your own values.

It would be unfair and silly to portray all Democratic politicians as devoid of moral convictions, but it’s not inaccurate to state that there is a widespread phobia among Democrats of appearing “weak,” which paradoxically leads to behavior that further reinforces that impression. When you fret too much over what others think, you tend to contort yourself in an attempt to please, often at the expense of your core beliefs. When the specific complaint is that you’re weak, there is a tendency is to do whatever your critics characterize as strong – and in the case of Democrats, they tend to ignore the strength of their own values and emulate Republicans, ending up looking even weaker in the process.

UPDATE: Chris Cillizza notes Obama’s crumbling base:

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows those who supported his 2008 election leaving the president in unprecedented numbers. The number of Obama 2008 voters who approve of his job performance is down to 79 percent, and on the economy, it’s 70 percent. Both are new lows for the president.

What’s more, some of his natural constituencies — liberals and young people — are also backing away. Just 69 percent of liberals say they approve of the president’s performance, while 47 percent of 18-to-29 year olds do. Those are also new lows, and it’s the first time the youngest demographic has dipped below 50 percent approval for Obama.

It’s more in a long line of polling data that paints a bad picture for Obama in recent weeks. But given the unprecedented coalition that the president put together in 2008, these numbers are particularly troubling.

Obama’s win in 2008 was particularly notable for the amount of young people who turned out to vote for him. And vote for him they did, casting ballots about two-to-one for the Democrat.

These days, just 41 percent of 18-to-29 year olds approve of Obama’s handling of the economy, and 45 percent approve of him on jobs. Combine that with the erosion Obama has seen among liberals and independents, and the question is: what is Obama’s base for the 2012 election?