Festering tensions between the White House and liberal activists flared Tuesday, with presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs scolding what he called “the professional left” for its vocal objections to President Obama’s record.
In an interview with the Hill newspaper, the president’s chief spokesman voiced disdain for liberal critics who’ve likened Obama to former President George W. Bush.
“These people ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs said. “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality. They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”
Later in the day, Gibbs put out a statement saying he had spoken “inartfully.”
“I watch too much cable, I admit,” he said.
Still, the dust-up underscored the tough political position in which the president finds himself. Left and right are unhappy with him, narrowing the political base that Obama needs to pass legislation and avoid losses in the November midterm election.
Until this point, Obama and liberal activists have largely minimized their disagreements in public. But Gibbs’ comments could strain the uneasy alliance, ushering in a period where mutual disenchantment is voiced more openly.
The backlash against Gibbs was swift.
Dr. Quentin Young, a Chicago physician and national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program, which advocates for single-payer health insurance, said he was “incredulous” when he first heard of Gibbs’ comments. Young, an early supporter of Obama, immediately wrote Gibbs.
“I believe that unless you retract the insulting description of deeply committed citizens you will drive off those of us who supported the president’s campaign and have anguished over the fruitless lurches to the right that have characterized the first half of the president’s first term,” Young wrote.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) reportedly called on Gibbs to resign. But late Tuesday night, he denied doing so. “I did say, however, that he went too far in his rhetoric,” and hope that he “has reconsidered the wisdom of his words,” Ellison said in a statement.
Gibbs did not preside at the daily news briefing Tuesday, sending Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton to take his place.
The rift between the White House and the political left has been intensifying for some time. Liberal activists are unhappy that Obama has failed to:
• Allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.
Push through a bill that would provide a path to legal status for illegal immigrants.
Provide a government-run insurance program that would compete with private health insurers — the so-called public option.
Put a stop to some of the practices that Bush used in combating terrorism.
“There is a frustration in the LGBT community that the promises that were made have not been entirely fulfilled,” said Fred Sainz, vice president at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights organization.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich said Gibbs’ comments were inappropriate for a presidential spokesman. Rather than dismiss the criticism, Gibbs and others at the White House should embrace it “as a measure of the hope that remains unfulfilled,” Kucinich said in an interview.
“It’s important for him to understand that there is great concern among liberals and a lot of other people about the fact that we have not created enough jobs, that wars are continuing, that civil liberties have eroded and that this is not what we signed up for,” Kucinich said.
Julia Love of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.