By Mike Lillis - 04/13/11 10:00 AM EDT
Anxiety over President Obama’s shift to the political center is threatening to alienate the White House’s liberal base.
As Obama prepares Wednesday to outline his deficit reduction strategy, liberals worry he’ll embrace Medicare and Medicaid cuts as an olive branch to Republicans in advance of larger fights over the nation’s debt.
Liberal lawmakers already were irked with Obama’s decision to support upper-income tax cuts he campaigned against and to launch military operations in the Middle East without congressional approval.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) this week said Obama should start acting like a Democrat, while two left-wing grassroots groups warned their members could withhold funds from the president’s reelection campaign.
The criticisms highlight the problem facing Obama, who is trying to lead from the center without alienating his political base. The White House strategy could help the president with independents, but risks leaving liberals at home in the fall of 2012.
The difficulty of navigating this tightrope was exemplified last week, when Obama announced his reelection campaign the same day his attorney general said the administration was all but giving up on holding civilian trials for suspected terrorists.
It has also come up with the spending bill, which the White House has touted as an example of presidential leadership but which liberal groups have criticized.
The agreement would cut almost $40 billion in federal funding this year, with cuts targeting education, health and nutrition programs long supported by Democrats. Liberals are grumbling that Obama favored the Republicans’ priorities over those of his own caucus.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who helped Obama broker the deal, has joined the White House in highlighting the programs the Democrats were able to preserve, rather than dwelling on the cuts they were forced to concede.
But a spokeswoman for the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) warned that such an approach creates the impression that Democrats are winning the budget battle.
“We’re not winning,” the CBC spokeswoman said, explaining that many of the cuts enacted this year disproportionately affect minority and low-income populations.
The CBC has lobbed similar criticisms against Obama’s 2012 budget proposal, which included cuts to community block grants and a popular energy subsidy program for low-income households. The group intends to offer its own 2012 spending plan in the near future.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus has also proposed a separate 2012 budget bill. In a Monday op-ed in the Huffington Post, Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Mike Honda (D-Calif.) characterized their plan as “the only real Democratic budget.”
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) and MoveOn.org both launched email petitions Tuesday to pressure Obama on entitlements.
“If you cut Medicare and Medicaid benefits for me, my parents, my grandparents or families like mine, don’t ask for a penny of my money or an hour of my time in 2012,” the PCCC petition reads. “I’m going to focus on electing bold progressive candidates — not Democrats who help Republicans make harmful cuts to key programs.”
The PCCC petition collected more than 40,000 signatures in just over two hours, according to Adam Green, who heads the group.
In a second campaign from the left, MoveOn called on Obama to condemn the GOP’s 2012 budget proposal, which the group said would privatize Medicare and turn Medicaid into a block-grant program.
“We need the president to forcefully denounce these proposals, to show the American people whose side Democrats are on,” the MoveOn petition said. “Starting negotiations by endorsing a plan that would further weaken the middle class is all wrong. But there’s still time for the president to change course.”
DeFazio said Monday that Democrats haven’t put enough pressure on Obama.
“That’s what the House did wrong in the last Congress, and in part why we lost is we never pushed back, no matter how wrong he was or how off-base he was; we never pushed back,” DeFazio told MSNBC.
“There are a number of us in the caucus now pushing back very hard on our leadership,” DeFazio said. “Who knows where they’ll end up, but maybe we can take enough D’s with us to make them uncomfortable and to make them stick with making the president act like a Democrat.”
The Democrats’ frustration with Obama is hardly new. Liberals were furious in December when the president caved to GOP demands that Congress extend tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. More recently, many liberals have questioned the wisdom and constitutionality of launching military attacks on Libya with prior approval from Congress.
Behind closed doors, Democratic leaders are frustrated that Obama hasn’t been more involved in the big policy fights of recent months, including the spending battle.
A House Democratic leadership aide said party leaders are hopeful Wednesday’s speech is an indication that he’ll be more engaged as the debate turns to even more contentious issues. “He’s effective when he’s engaged,” the aide said.