Obama's appeal to SF's divided Left draws mixed reactions

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President Barack Obama has a divided political base, as local Democrats who showed up at the Laborers Local 261 hall last night to hear his nomination acceptance speech were immediately reminded by leftist protesters. And despite the belief by some true believers that his speech won over its target audience, I have my doubts.

Courage to Resist and its allies from Code Pink, the Occupy movement, and other groups targeted this Democratic County Central Committee watch party (and 24 others around the country) with an appeal that Obama free Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of turning over classified documents to Wikileaks who has been kept in solitary confinement for almost two years without trial.

“President Obama needs to live up to his promise to protect whistleblowers,” said Jeff Paterson, founder of Courage to Resist and himself a Gulf War resister (and coincidentally the ex-boyfriend of newly elected DCCC member Kat Anderson). For more on that protest, read this.

DCCC member Hene Kelly (and a phalanx of SFPD cops) helped keep the entrance clear – something the good-natured protesters didn't seem to threaten – and said she understood their perspective: “They're here because they have a right to ask President Obama to free Bradley Manning, and I agree with them.”

But inside, DCCC Chair Mary Jung wasn't so happy about this rain on their parade, telling the Guardian that she supported the ideas behind Occupy but said, “I think the message is misdirected at us,” ticking off Democratic Party positions on same sex marriage, immigration reform, and other issues.

When I told her that the protest was actually about Manning, whose fate is pretty clearly in the hands of Obama and his appointees, she offered this hopeful assessment: “I would hope it's going to work it's way through the courts as it's supposed to. There is a process.”

When I tried to get District Attorney George Gascon's take on whether that process comports with normal legal and civil rights standards, he told us, “I have no opinion. I need to digest the information a little more.” (That was more than Willie Brown offered, with the former mayor, unregistered political lobbyist, and San Francisco Chronicle columnist responding to my questions with, “I'm a columnist. I don't make comments to other newspapers,” after he gave a speech to the gathered Democrats.)

But it didn't take Gascon long to digest Obama's speech, telling us afterward, “I think he hit it out of park. If this doesn't get the enthusiasm up, nothing will.”

Yet my reaction, and most that I've heard since then from people who listened to the speech, wasn't quite so enthusiastic. Yes, Obama had some good lines, and yes, he fairly effectively countered many of the Republican misrepresentations of his record and ability to quickly turn around the failing economy he inherited. And yes, I think the substance and messaging were more progressive than his centrist acceptance speech of four years ago.

“Times have changed and so have I,” Obama declared at one point.

But this is a party that still shares the same basic paradigm as the Republican Party, this story of American exceptionalism, protected by noble military “heroes” and guided by altruistic virtues, working within an economic system that can just keep growing and expanding the prosperity of US citizens indefinitely – the kind of rhetoric that still drove the crowd to a jingoistic chant of “USA, USA, USA!” at one point.

Yet it was a crowd where not a single person in the local hall applauded or cheered for this line by Obama: “Our country only works when we accept our obligation to each other and future generations.” He's right, but he's also been running the country in a way that robs from future generations in many realms (debt, infrastructure, global warming, energy, education, etc.) and doesn't address our obligation to the protesters out front and the valid perspective that they represent.

“There are many shades of blue in the Democratic Party. We're all blue,” Jung told me.

Perhaps that true, because I felt a little blue coming away from this event, but maybe not in the sense that Jung intended.

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