President Obama risks muddling his message when he heads to Michigan on Friday to sign a farm bill that cuts $8 billion in funding for food stamps.
Obama has been criss-crossing the country arguing for the need to strengthen the nation’s ladders of opportunity, but on Friday will sign into law a bill that many in his party say will hurt the neediest Americans.
Obama in his State of the Union address lobbied Congress to grant him fast-track trade powers — something many liberals say will clear the way for deals that hurt jobs and wages. House Democrats sent Obama a letter warning that bad trade deals had led to declining workplace protections, benefits, and quality of life.
Congressional Democrats also remain upset over the president’s inclusion of chained CPI — which would effectively slow the growth of entitlement benefits — in his budget offer last year. Lawmakers have urged the president to pull back on that offer in his upcoming budget proposal, warning it was an unmatched concession to Republicans that would hurt the poor and seniors.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), explaining her no vote on the farm bill, said families receiving food aid “didn’t spend our nation into debt and we shouldn’t tighten the federal belt around their waists.”
The White House has argued there are plenty of good provisions in the farm bill that will help middle class and lower income homes. It includes funding for research institutions to develop new technologies that will benefit farmers and create jobs, for example.
It also reforms certain farm subsidies, and represents a significant concession with congressional Republicans who wanted to cut food stamp programs by $40 billion.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who voted against the bill, called Obama’s signing of the bill a “contradiction” but defended his decision to do so.
“I don't think it's going to be the overwhelming determiner on the issue of how we do in the mid-terms and the little guy,” added Grijalva, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It's a contradiction, but I don't think it does any harm.”
Yet high-profile liberals like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also voted against the bill, and representatives from progressive groups are using it to lambaste Obama.
“If the president were truly serious about confronting the growing crisis of income inequality, he'd veto this bill and push for Congress to cut corporate subsidies, not food stamps,” said Democracy for America spokesman Neil Sroka.
Differences between Obama and the left are nothing new, of course.
The left has repeatedly second-guessed Obama’s negotiating skills, arguing the stimulus could have been larger and the healthcare law stronger if the White House hadn’t been focused on bipartisanship and winning GOP votes.
The White House for its part has expressed repeated frustration with the left, which it often views as expecting too much given the divide in Washington.
Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said the split was “a good example of the frustration of being president in a period of polarization.”
“It’s just very tough to have so much difficulty dealing with the Tea Party wing of the Republican caucus, and then you get a deal and the left of your own party is nipping at your heels,” Jillson said.
Obama doesn’t view himself as the left-winger that critics see.
In an interview Sunday with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, he said Richard Nixon was in many ways more of a liberal.
Progressives aren’t necessarily heartened by the White House’s claim of a least-worst result on the farm bill.
“Frankly, one of the major disappointments about this farm bill is that the leading talking point is that, ‘Well, we didn’t cut as much as Republicans wanted,’” said Sorka. “Somehow we should be satisfied with ripping a little less food out of the mouth of people? That’s not the type of progressive leadership we want from leaders we tirelessly knock on doors for,” Sroka said.
But Rep. Jim McDermott (D), who also rejected the farm bill, said Obama shouldn’t worry about muddling a message since voters will understand the political give-and-take required to cut a deal.
“People have got to work with compromise, [but] you've got to be able to explain why you compromised,” McDermott said. “I just am lucky enough not to have to compromise.”