President Obama's Coalition Faces Strains

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The political press characterized it as a stinging censure by the young commander-in-chief. President Obama, barely two months removed from his inauguration, had gathered a roomful of bailed-out Wall Street executives in the White House and delivered a stark message: Change the way you do business or I'll feed you to the wolves.

"My administration," the president warned his visitors, "is the only thing standing between you and the pitchforks."

Colin Kalmbacher, 26, an international and constitutional law student who served as an Obama precinct captain in Texas's 146th District during the 2008 campaign, spending the year "canvassing, phone banking, pamphleteering, and posting flyers," judged the exchange much differently.

Reading the comments some months later, he recalled a feeling that "the illusion of distance between state and corporate power" had been broken, and with it, finally, his psychic bond with the president.

This is the break in the Obama coalition that even openly left-leaning media outlets tend to ignore. While the president still enjoys a 24-point lead over Mitt Romney in polling among 18-29 year olds, there is a question in 2012 about the relative advantage that will yield. Young progressives with a lefty bent, their worldviews shaped by recession, war and crippling student debt are increasingly looking outside conventional politics -- notably, to the Occupy movement, Ron Paul or the Tea Party -- for new means of pursuing social and economic change.

"Obama was a very romantic choice in 2008. I don't think anyone would deny that," Kalmbacher said. "[He] provided great mythmaking about the American system, which is fine as long as there's some bit of reality corresponding to the myth. But there isn't."

These misgivings are not solely rooted in a generational economic dislocation and the resulting inequities. President Obama may take credit for ending the war in Iraq, but his Afghan surge and reliance on a secretive campaign of extrajudicial drone strikes on the Pakistan border has ratcheted up the domestic angst.

On Tuesday night in Charlotte, N.C., Gawker live blogger John Cook submitted a brief but dark and telling dispatch: "Nate Davis, the director of veterans affairs for Xavier University, just gave an exceedingly brief speech about Obama's commitment to veterans, which is important because his policies have generated a LOT of veterans!"

There is a sense among the young defectors that Obama, as an early opponent of the Iraq War and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has unfairly escaped the scrutiny and criticism that would be leveled at an elected official with a more traditional political provenance.

"Because of his reputation as a liberal Democrat in the Ted Kennedy mold, he gets away with the stuff that had Bush burned in effigy," Kalmbacher said. "Richard Nixon goes to China, Barack Obama drone-murders wedding parties."

Seventeen hundred miles from Kalmbacher's home in North Texas, just hours before the Democratic National Convention was scheduled to be officially "gaveled in" Tuesday at Charlotte, N.C.'s Time Warner Cable Arena, Max Berger was racing the raindrops to his New York City apartment.

More than four years removed from his seat -- "just behind [current DNC chair] Tim Kaine" -- inside Denver's Invesco Field stadium at the last DNC, Berger has traded in his "more-traditional political background" for work as a less-traditional leftist organizer. One of the more media-friendly faces around Zuccotti Park during the brief delirium surrounding Occupy Wall Street last fall, Berger has turned his attention now to more-focused "direct actions."

"I was there for the speech in 2008," Berger said, recalling then-candidate Obama's address to an electrified audience of at least 84,000 supporters. "I worked for Howard Dean [who was the DNC chair at the time] and with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is part of Bold Progressives," a partisan group that drives support for Democratic candidates at all levels.

But Berger's view of the party and the president has changed.

"The Democratic party is, at best, a tool of change," he said. "It's a forum for battle; it's not someone or something on our side."

Like Kalmbacher, Berger lost his patience during the post-bailout fight for bank reform.

He called President Obama's decision to hire old hands like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner instructive: The American economic infrastructure was collapsing, but the president chose the same people who had authored or implemented apparently disastrous anti-regulatory policies to "fix" it.

"The challenge is that a relatively small amount of people decide what happens," Berger said, "and then they are totally insulated from the results. ... The investor class, not workers with IRAs or people with 401(k)s, but private equity groups and hedge fund managers, have been doing great."

So what now? Berger believes that the "bad faith" of Democratic and Republican negotiators has made it impossible to pursue meaningful change through even grassroots party politics.

"We need to take the fight to the people -- we need strikes, we need to disrupt the economy of the '1 percent,'" he said.

"At some point, you need to stop banging your head against the wall ... and just tear down the wall."