By Mike Lillis and Amie Parnes - 01/05/12 10:15 AM EST
After a difficult year in which he absorbed criticism from the left suggesting that he was spineless, President Obama has launched 2012 with a bold bid to re-secure liberal support critical to his hopes for reelection.
The president’s surprise move Wednesday to buck Republicans and fill openings in his administration while Congress remains on holiday break brought catcalls from the right but cheers from the left, which had called for Obama to take on the GOP.
Sources say the recess-appointment idea started "gaining steam" in the weeks leading up to a failed December cloture vote on Richard Cordray's nomination to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. White House officials then began to lose patience with Senate Republicans, who had held up Cordray and nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.
It was also a remarkable change in posture for the president from a year ago, when his White House was focused on compromising with Republicans and securing the support of independent voters. This was best characterized by the president’s decision to extend the Bush tax rates for wealthier taxpayers, which infuriated liberal Democrats.
On Wednesday, Obama’s supporters were singing a different tune.
“It was just what the doctor ordered,” one Obama donor said of the recess appointments. "It shows that he has some moxy and a little chutzpah."
Obama struck a combative tone in a speech Wednesday in swing-state Ohio, where he announced the recess appointment of Cordray.
“When Congress refuses to act, and as a result hurts our economy and puts our people at risk, then I have an obligation as president to do what I can without them,” Obama said.
“I've got an obligation to act on behalf of the American people. And I'm not going to stand by while a minority in the Senate puts party ideology ahead of the people that we were elected to serve. Not with so much at stake, not at this make-or-break moment for the middle class."
Congressional Republicans, who argue the NLRB and new consumer office will hold back the economy, quickly condemned Obama. But a number of the liberal groups that helped elect Obama were immediately energized by the leftward shift.
“Facing certain Republican obstructionism in the Senate, the president showed true leadership by using his executive power to ensure that the NLRB retains a quorum and remains fully functional," Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said in a statement. "In these economic times, shutting down or hobbling an independent federal agency charged with protecting workers' rights is simply not an option."
The decision was like a late Christmas gift to labor groups upset with the president’s backing of several free-trade agreements last year.
And unions weren't the only of Obama's traditional backers to voice their frustrations with the president's policies in 2011.
Last year, environmentalists attacked when Obama scrapped a looming clean-air rule; Hispanic advocates were up in arms over aggressive deportations; Jewish groups condemned Obama's position on Israel's borders; and members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) were critical of the White House's inaction on soaring unemployment in the black community.
By defying Republicans on the controversial recess appointments, the president seemed anxious to make some amends.
Liberal groups, for their part, were more than willing to accept the offering.
Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, said he's "very pleased" with Cordray's appointment.
"Now the CFPB can be a watchdog on both banks and non-banks and can work with its full powers to protect consumers," Hickey said in a statement.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), another liberal group that has frequently criticized Obama's shift to the center, was similarly pleased with Cordray's appointment, blasting out an email Wednesday under the subject line "BIG WIN!!"
Julian E. Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, said Wednesday's appointments were calculated “to remind the liberal base about why they were so excited back in 2008.” But the move, Zelizer warned, is not without its political risks.
"The problem is that with each move like this he further angers conservatives and, potentially, creates unease among moderates and Republicans," Zelizer said in an email. "Because of the problems with the economy and his frayed relations with the left, he finds himself in the current position where he must constantly balance these kinds of trade-offs rather than expanding a strong coalition."
Indeed, GOP leaders wasted no time Wednesday hammering the president's recess appointments. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Cordray's appointment was an “unprecedented move” by a president who “arrogantly circumvented the American people.” And House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) delivered a similar message, characterizing the move as an "extraordinary … power-grab" that "defies centuries of practice."
"The precedent that would be set by this cavalier action would have a devastating effect on the checks and balances that are enshrined in our Constitution," Boehner said in a statement.
Recognizing the political briar patch Obama was entering, the president's top campaign advisers sought Wednesday to pre-empt such conservative criticism.
In a phone call with reporters, David Axelrod, Obama's senior campaign strategist, cited the Cordray appointment in an effort to carve a distinction between a president fighting for middle-class consumers and GOP presidential hopefuls — notably former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — battling for wealthy interests.
"At every turn," Axelrod said, "Gov. Romney stands up for an economy in which the game is rigged against everyday people, and we have two sets of rules: one for the financial engineers like himself and another for the vast majority of American people who are running faster and faster to keep pace.”
It was an argument, like the decision to use the recess-appointment powers, likely to appeal to the president’s base.