Obama and the left back in sync
Obama and the left back in sync
President Barack Obama finally gave his liberal critics exactly what they wanted.
His tough opening bid on deficit reduction and his feisty, defiant speech from the White House Monday were greeted with almost incredulous joy by progressives who have urged Obama to take this kind of hard line with Republicans since the day he was elected.
After two years of disappointing compromises on health care, Wall Street reform, climate change and the Bush-era tax cuts — and nearly one year after Obama’s centrist tack in reaction to the 2010 midterm elections — Obama is now singing from the left’s playbook.
He called for $1.5 trillion in new taxes on the wealthy. He protected Social Security. And he declined to include a conciliatory offer to raise the Medicare eligibility age — a decision that thrilled “the professional left,” as his aides have long derided them, whose advice on policy and strategy were often ignored by a White House deeply committed to the legislative middle road.
“His inclination was to say, ‘Look, the economy is going off a cliff, this is not a time for us to be talking past each other, we have to work together,’” said Jared Bernstein, a former top administration economist, of the president’s first two-and-a-half years.
Obama, he said, is now ready to play against type.
“It’s absolutely legitimate to exhaust every possible avenue of that strategy — but once you’ve done so, you have to take it outside that process and go directly to the people,” said Bernstein, who worked for Vice President Joe Biden.
The pivot from appeasement to partisanship is a notable shift for Obama, one that follows a brutal summer during which his compromise on the debt ceiling made him appear weak against the Republican-controlled House and further depressed his standing with Democrats and independents.
It was a sign to the White House that its strategy of conciliation wasn’t working, either legislatively or politically. Republicans showed they weren’t interested in a grand bargain that included new revenue, so laying out a plan that differed only slightly from the one Obama negotiated with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) no longer made sense to the White House.
“You can accuse President Obama of a lot of things, but being dumb is not one of them,” said Paul Begala, a senior adviser to Priorities USA, a Democratic super-PAC. “He seems to be the kind of guy who if he can’t get it one way, he will get it another.”
There’s still time for Obama to disappoint progressives.
His plan for cutting $3 trillion from the deficit over the next decade is meant as a starting offer to a joint Senate-House committee tasked with identifying $1.5 trillion in savings by Thanksgiving. Political winds might shift once again, and Obama could agree to a final product that deeply disheartens liberals — a familiar pattern to them. Progressives vowed to fight $320 billion in proposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.
But in a break from his usual strategy of maximizing leverage by endorsing only broad principles early on, Obama drew hard lines on taxes and entitlement programs, providing hope to restless progressives that this legislative fight may turn out differently than so many in the past.
Obama pledged to veto any plan that cuts Medicare benefits without raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. He dubbed his pledge to even out the tax code the “Buffett Rule,” a nod to claims by billionaire investor Warren Buffett that his secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does. And the president railed against Republicans for denouncing this principle as “class warfare.”
“This is not class warfare. It’s math,” Obama said. “If we are not willing to ask those who have done extraordinarily well to help America close the deficit … then the logic, the math says everybody else has to do a whole lot more.”
His mocking tone toward Republicans, along with the sharp left turn in his policy prescriptions, aimed to send an unmistakable message to voters who have increasingly questioned the strength of Obama’s backbone: Congress won’t push him around any longer. If Republicans want a deal, then they’re going to have to compromise, too.
“He is starting the negotiations pretty deep in his territory, which is pretty smart,” Bernstein said.
To liberals, Obama’s new tone embodied two of their deeply held views: There’s no point in negotiating with Republicans, much less offering concessions before negotiations; and liberalism can win on the merits of the big issues of taxes and spending.
“If he refuses to compromise, he’ll win,” said Dan Cantor, executive director of New York’s labor-backed Working Families Party, which led a drive last year for a similar “millionaire’s tax.” “It’s economically sensible, politically popular and morally just.”
Polls consistently show that Americans, both Democrats and swing voters, support raising taxes on the wealthy, and oppose reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits.
But a month ago, when Obama announced that he would provide a “very specific” plan on deficit reduction, progressives were convinced that the president would endorse the most controversial agreements from his closed-door talks with Boehner on raising the debt ceiling.
Groups such as the Campaign for America’s Future, MoveOn and the AFL-CIO mobilized their networks, using public and private channels to pressure the White House. They told the administration repeatedly that it does Obama no good to target the programs that are most popular with Democrats. If he tried to raise the Medicare eligibility age or trim Social Security benefits, the groups warned, they would fight him.
“We’re glad to be shifting the conversation in the right direction,” said Peter Colavito, director of government affairs for the Service Employees International Union.
At the same time, Obama’s poll numbers showed he was damaged by the debt-ceiling fight, alienating the broad coalition of voters who elected him and gaining little from the independent voters who prize budget restraint. He reinvigorated his core supporters with his $447 billion jobs plan, so picking a fight on entitlement reform would send him off track at a time he can least afford it.
As long as he follows through, Obama’s plan could signal an abrupt end to some of the persistent discontent on the left, which takes two forms.
First, many of Obama’s allies, from union leaders to liberal bloggers, have been skeptical of his vision for a new, consensual politics. Republicans, they argue, are bent on all-out political war, and Democrats must be just as tough and ruthless.
Second, they’ve been disappointed by Obama’s lack of interest in selling a capacious liberal policy vision that they have long believed would win — if it were only fully articulated.
But on Monday, progressives cheered the more liberal, more populist and more aggressive Obama.
“Their messaging is much more in line with where ours has been for the last six months, and we’re very pleased to see that,” said Daniel Mintz, campaign director for MoveOn. “They’re trying to negotiate with people who have no interest in negotiating. The smart thing to do is to lay out your vision for the American people who are overwhelmingly on your side, rather than to pre-negotiate with people who aren’t negotiating in good faith.”
Emily Schultheis contributed to this report.