Obama’s left flank slides away as the White House dissembles

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Reporters spent 10 minutes Monday pressing White House spokesman Jay Carney for specifics on President Barack Obama’s plan to deal with the escalating debt-limit crisis. So far, the White House has not issued any specific proposals.

After hedging and equivocating, Carney eventually signaled the administration’s worry that negotiated concessions will disappoint and alienate Obama’s core left-wing supporters. (RELATED: Conservatives divided over debt deal)

“Our interest in this has been to get a compromise, to get a deal,” Carney said. “It has not been to politically position ourselves, say, with things that appeal to our base, maybe pieces of legislation that we know can’t pass but it would be greeted warmly by certain constituencies.”

Obama has tried to broker a “big” debt-ceiling deal that would keep government spending high, and also boost his sagging support among swing-voting independents whose support he will need in 2012.

Ultimately, though, any deal will require that he make concessions to the GOP’s invigorated cadre of small-government legislators.

By keeping his proposals vague and the negotiations behind closed doors, Obama can minimize his public association with proposals, concessions and deals that might be supported by independents but disliked by progressives.

The president has acknowledged his willingness to require higher payments from Medicare recipients, and also to set lower payouts to Social Security recipients. But both offers were made behind closed doors and later disputed by unnamed White House spokesmen, minimizing political pain following strong blowback from liberal groups including the Strengthen Social Security Campaign and the National Disability Leadership Alliance.

Similarly, while Obama is using his many public appearances to demand tax increases, behind closed doors he has already — albeit reluctantly — abandoned progressives’ demands for tax increases.

The White House’s worries about the solidity of its liberal base is explained by a growing collection of recent polls.

A mid-July ABC/Washington Post poll showed that liberal Democrats’ support for Obama’s job record has fallen to 31 percent, down 22 points from 53 percent last year. Among African-Americans, another core constituency, his jobs rating has dropped from 77 percent to barely 50 percent.

In May, Obama attracted an 81-percent approval rating among liberals, and 90 percent among liberal democrats, according to Gallup’s weekly tracking poll. By late July, scores had dropped to 70 percent and 81 percent, respectively, in these two critical groups.

Those scores are far higher than Obama’s current rating of 41 percent among independents. But those two groups provide a large slice of campaign volunteers, outspoken supporters and small donors. Losses among them will reverberate through his 2012 campaign.


Obama is already suffering criticism and defections among well-known liberals. In May, academic Cornel West said Obama has become “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats … [and the] head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.” Actress Barbra Streisand complained about the Christmas deal to extend income-tax cuts, and actor Robert Redford said Obama was no longer a “bold and visionary leader.”

Progressive politicians are voicing similar complaints.

Vermont socialist and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders said last weekend that progressives should force Obama to compete for renomination: ”I think one of the reasons the president has been able to move so far to the right is that there is no primary opposition to him, and I think it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda as opposed to what Obama is doing.”

Similarly, Chicago Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez was arrested yesterday outside the White House while protesting against Obama’s reluctance to support amnesty for illegal immigrants. “Everyone knows he has the power to stop deporting [young illegal immigrants] and others with deep roots in the U.S. and we think he should use it,” Gutierrez, a Puerto Rican socialist, said in a press release.

Obama has already lost crucial support among swing-voting independents and Democratic-aligned groups, including younger voters, Hispanic voters and Jewish voters. Almost one-fifth of white 20-somethings, for example, have shifted from the Democratic column into the GOP column since 2008, according to Gallup, which recently pegged the president’s overall national approval rating at a dismal 43 percent.

These groups backed Obama in 2008 but have since moved away, partly because of the stalled economy; there’s little evidence that U.S. economic conditions will recover before November 2012.

Those polling losses require Obama to keep his negotiating positions hidden from progressive supporters who sharply oppose concessions that he needs to offer the GOP’s budget-cutters.

“You know that the reason why we’ve approached it this way is … to create the optimum circumstances for a compromise,” Carney told skeptical reporters on Monday. “You know how this process works … when you put forward a position … it becomes charged politically and your chances of actually getting an agreement diminish significantly,” he said.

“That’s how it works.  You know that’s how it works.”