The crowd at this year's Campaign for America's Future annual conference--think of a DC-based ProgFest for liberal activists and policy wonks from across the country--was much smaller than in years past. The conference, which opened on Monday, seemed to have about one-fourth the attendees of last year, when about 2000 people turned up for the "Take Back America" shindig. This year's event was dubbed "America's Future Now!"
The drop-off is not surprising. In fact, it's the cost of success. Now that George W. Bush is long gone (even if the same cannot be said for Dick Cheney) and Barack Obama, the onetime community organizer, is in The House, it's natural that some of the fire on the left is gone. Winning can demotivate a political side. And I remember that in 1994, after the Democrats lost the House to the Republicans for the first time in decades, Representative Barney Frank told me that it was more fun to be in a fired-up opposition.
What wasn't to be expected was the lack of love the Obama White House showed the conference's organizers. Obama himself came to the event in 2006 and 2007. He skipped it last year because he was campaigning, but he won its straw poll. After all, the annual conference embodies his base. As he noted during his 2007 appearance before the group, "It will be because of you that we take America back." He celebrated the campaign's efforts, noting that change comes from the bottom up due to the work of the sort of activists who were attending the gathering.
That was then. This year, Obama will not be making the mile or so drive from the White House to the hotel hosting the conference. Nor will he be sending Vice President Joe Biden. In fact, the three-day program is light on representation from the Obama administration. At the opening event on Monday morning, Jared Bernstein, Biden's chief economic adviser, made some general comments about the administration's policies and then quickly left before there could be any real debate or discussion between him and other panelists (who had expressed skepticism regarding the administration's various bailouts). Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was scheduled to speak at a panel on health care reform later in the day. And Celia Munoz, the White House director of intergovernmental affairs, was scheduled to give out the Paul Wellstone Leadership Award at the group's gala dinner on Tuesday.
That's it--not much of a payback to the base.
During the tough primary face-off between Obama and Hillary Clinton last year, many of the Take Back America types were on his side, making up that base of Democratic progressives who wanted an end to the Iraq war. But the Obama White House isn't showing its appreciation. At the moment, Obama is riding high and may not need that base. But there are rough battles to come--health care reform and cap-and trade, for instance--and in politics, you never know when tables will turn and you'll need your friends. It would have been a wise move--and just plain menschy--for the Obama White House to have shared itself a bit more with the folks who Obama said helped him to win America.