The steps of the U.S. Captiol in Washington, DC. (Sept....

The steps of the U.S. Captiol in Washington, DC. (Sept. 14, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

Liberal groups are trying to build a grassroots movement that will help revive the economy and protect Medicare and Social Security, but whether they will be successful — and use it to help re-elect President Barack Obama — is unclear.

Organizers of this week's "Take Back the American Dream" conference in Washington have studied the origins of the tea party as they try to build a countermovement to support liberal causes. The effort is a response to Republicans' takeover of the House in 2010 and disenchantment over Obama's attempts at compromise.

After Obama's election, many Democrats said they falsely assumed that winning the White House would help them pass an agenda that would assist middle-class families. Instead, they were dismayed when Obama ditched a proposed "public option" for a government insurance plan from the health care overhaul and cringed when he cut a deal with Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts.

During the summer, the left argued that Obama gave up too much in spending cuts during the debt-ceiling fight and couldn't force Republicans to accept higher taxes on the wealthy in return.

"People are totally ready to get behind (Obama), but I think what they're not ready to give anybody is the benefit of the doubt that if we win an election and we all go home, things are going to change," said Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union. "That was probably the theory of the Obama election and taking over the House by the Democrats and the Senate as well. I think it was a failed strategy."

So liberal organizations have tried to build a movement, holding hundreds of house meetings across the country and staging protests at town hall meetings held by Republican lawmakers — a tactic that tea party activists used to build opposition to Obama's health care plan.

Conference speakers said Obama's jobs bill could act as a turning point, a sign that the president is taking a more aggressive push to revive the economy and standing firm against deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security. The president has barnstormed the country, rallying support for the $447 billion plan for tax cuts and public works spending to stimulate the economy.

While the plan is unlikely to pass Congress in its entirety, the White House believes Obama's populist approach will build support among the public. And liberals think they've already moved the president.

"Why is the White House talking different? The White House is talking different because we are walking different," said Van Jones, a former Obama policy adviser who helped organize the conference.

Liberals took close watch of Obama's discussion of deficit reduction measures and were pleased that he did not seek a gradual increase in the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67. Last summer, Obama had agreed to the age increase in negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner before the talks fell apart. Many Democrats objected to the age increases, arguing it would undercut their criticisms of a Republican plan that would overhaul Medicare.

On Social Security, Democrats have railed against plans by Republican presidential hopefuls to partially privatize the retirement system, letting younger workers divert part of their payroll taxes into a personal account to be invested outside of Social Security.

Obama does not face a primary challenge, and Republicans have little chance of picking up support from hard-core Democrats next year. But Obama needs liberals to knock on doors, staff phone banks and register voters — must-do jobs for any candidate's base. Dissatisfied liberals could also stay home on Election Day or refuse to donate money to Obama's campaign.

There are signs of an enthusiasm gap. A recent survey by Gallup found that 45 percent of Democrats said they were more enthusiastic about the 2012 presidential election than they had been in past elections, while 44 percent said they were less enthusiastic. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans, meanwhile, said they were more enthusiastic about 2012 than in past elections, and 30 percent were less enthusiastic.

Gallup said the enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans was the largest it has measured since 2000.

Many hope the American Dream movement can generate enthusiasm for Obama next year.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., told attendees at one session that many of her supporters appeared "beaten down" by the status of the economy and Obama's standing among voters but said liberals needed to bring energy to next year's election.

"We have to set people's hair on fire about what America would look like if Republicans get their way," she said.

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