Fear & Loathing In Minneapolis: Progressives Vent Frustration With Obama At Netroots Nation

ABC News’ Matthew Jaffe reports:

The frustrations and the fears that progressives feel about President Obama were on full display Thursday as thousands of them flocked to Minneapolis for the sixth annual Netroots Nation conference.

Former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold said he hoped that Obama will be re-elected, but he urged the president to stand up to corporate interests, demanding that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling become a focal point of the 2012 campaign.

“Sometimes we have to be very direct with the Democratic Party. Just as you have long pushed our Democrats to stand up for their ideals, I’m here this evening to ask you to redouble your efforts because I fear that the Democratic Party is in danger of losing its identity,” Feingold said in his keynote address to a crowd of around 2,400 progressive activists and bloggers here at the Minneapolis Convention Center, the most ever for the event.

Specifically, Feingold ripped Priorities USA, a super political action committee started last spring by former White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton.

“I think it’s a mistake for us to take the argument that they like to make that, ‘Well, what we’re going to do now is, we’re going to take the corporate money like the Republicans do and then after we win, we’ll change it.’ When’s the last time anyone did that? Most people don’t change the rules after they win by them. It doesn’t usually happen. It never happens,” Feingold said. “You know what? I think we’ll lose anyway if we do this. We’ll lose our soul when it comes to the issue of corporate domination. People will see us as weak. People will see us as corporate-lite. We’ll gut our message. I think it’s not just wrong, I think it’s a dumb strategy. It’s dumb because people will not believe us if we do this, so I strongly disagree with those who are trying to create these PACs. I know people want to win. I understand that. I like to win, too. And I know that today’s Republican party has found more ways to play dirty, so I empathize with the desire to fight fire with fire, but Democrats should just never be in the business of taking unlimited corporate contributions. It’s dancing with the devil and it’s a game that we will never win.”

“It’s not just campaigns and contributions,” Feingold noted. “We have to say to the president, ‘Mr. President, Jeff Immelt is not the right guy – the CEO of GE is not the right guy to be running your Jobs & Competitiveness Council, not when your company doubled its profits, increased his compensation, and asked its workers to take huge pay and benefits cuts.”

Former DNC chairman Howard Dean also addressed the opening day of the conference, noting that “grousing about the president is a stage we have to go through.” Dean said he will continue to support the president, but rather than focus on Obama, he suggested, people should focus on what they can do in their own communities.

“We are responsible for the change we can believe in,” he said. “Change does not come from Washington, DC. Change comes from the bottom up.”

“Politicians follow. They don’t lead. We lead, collectively, all of us.”

Others, though, were far more outspoken in their criticism of the Obama administration. Adam Bonin, the chairman of NetRoots who was once a law student of Obama’s at the University of Chicago, tried to explain why progressives are unhappy with the president.

“I think people are frustrated with President Obama. Obviously he came in with a lot of energy and a tremendous amount of support from this community,” Bonin said in an interview with ABC News. “And while a great deal has been accomplished, there are things that just haven’t been done yet on the economy, on judges, on foreign policy, and that frustration is out there.”

One breakout session this afternoon was titled, “What to do when the president is just not that into you?” The session featured Lt. Dan Choi, no stranger to directing ire at the White House for not taking a stronger stance on gay rights. At one point Choi ripped up a flyer from Organizing for America.

On Friday morning White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer will address the conference, while Vice President Biden’s former economic adviser Jared Bernstein will participate in a panel session later in the day. Bonin predicted that some audience members will be “out for blood” with Pfeiffer, while others will just want to hear what he has to say.

“Look, there are some people who are going to be out for blood. There are going to be some people who are just here to listen and learn,” Bonin said. “I don’t think it’s going to be hostile, but they know that this isn’t all hugs and kisses for them now.”

Not about to let progressives have the run of Minneapolis for the next couple of days, Republicans are staging their own conference – RightOnline – starting on Friday. A few Minnesota Republicans who are running for the White House – former governor Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann – will speak to the RightOnline gathering on Saturday.

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