Four years ago, with Democrats poised to win the presidency and make major gains in Congress, liberals were salivating at what looked like the best opportunity to advance their agenda since President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society.
In March 2008, activists gathered in Washington, D.C., for a conference put on by the group Campaign for America's Future and enthusiastically laid out liberal policies on issues such as health care and "green" energy. Four years later, much has changed.
During the Bush era, the conference was called "Take Back America," but that phrase was deemed racist once President Obama had been elected. When liberal activists gathered for the same conference this week, it was called "Take Back the American Dream."
To conservatives, Obama has aggressively pursued broadly liberal policies. But this isn't how the Left sees things. From the mind-set of liberal activists at the conference, Obama has gone out of his way to appease Republicans, to the detriment of the country.
Liberals may have gotten a health care law, but it did not go far enough, because it didn't create a single-payer system or even include a government-run insurance plan known as the "public option." And even that watered-down health care law is now threatened by a U.S. Supreme Court that, according to conference speaker Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., is "a wholly owned subsidiary of the right wing."
Perhaps the biggest disappointment liberals have with the Obama years is that there hasn't been enough government spending to boost the economy. The Left blames Obama for buying into the deficit hysteria promoted by the Tea Party and "Washington elites." Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was on hand promoting his new book, "End This Depression Now!" In an onstage interview with MSNBC's Chris Hayes, Krugman claimed vindication for his view that President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package was too small to dig the nation out of the economic crisis, but big enough to discredit the idea of government stimulus to less informed voters.
Damon Silvers, the director of policy at the AFL-CIO, echoed this theme. "Economic growth in this country remains weak," he said, describing problems including tepid job growth, the lingering housing crisis and mounting student loan debt. The solution, he said, was bolder action. "When we talk about infrastructure, we need to talk about trillions, not billions," he said. "When we talk about taxes where the wealthy pay their fair share, repealing the Bush tax cuts is not enough. It doesn't even begin to be enough."
Putting aside the policy arguments, the political problems facing liberals in 2012 are very similar to what conservatives faced in 2008. When both sides of the ideological spectrum are working from the premise that things are bad, it's tougher to win voters if the man who is perceived as "your guy" is in office.
In 2008, conservatives could argue all they wanted that President Bush wasn't pursuing conservative policies -- that he had expanded government, or that Iraq would have worked out better if he had sent more troops in to begin with. But that nuance was lost on voters, who swept Obama into office and gave him a filibuster-proof Senate majority. Similarly, the liberal case that Obama should have spent more on government stimulus is likely to be lost on voters who saw Obama make a lot of promises and spend a lot of money without much change to the economy's continued and universally acknowledged weakness.
To be sure, Obama may still get re-elected, given Mitt Romney's vulnerabilities as a candidate. But such a political victory isn't likely to translate into major liberal policy successes. The makeup of Congress is probably going to be a lot less favorable than the one Obama had when he passed the legislation that liberals view as inadequate.
Ironically, liberals' best hope of taking back their dream may be in a Romney presidency -- one that goes so badly, voters give liberalism a fresh look.