Obama wins praise from left with his initial negotiating moves on cliff

President Obama is attracting praise from the left for his opening bid in the fiscal-cliff negotiations, a sign he is eager to demonstrate his negotiating chops.

Democrats, who still wince at the deals Obama struck with the GOP over the last couple of years, say this time will be different. And the president, armed with fresh political capital after his reelection, is showing through his actions that he has the upper hand in the debt-deal talks.

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“For one of the first times in his presidency, he’s actually employing good negotiation strategy,” said Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green, who has not been shy in criticizing the White House. “Eventually the Republicans have to name names on the cuts they want to make. They’ll likely propose entitlement benefit cuts, and then the president will hopefully be able to come back with budget cuts that don’t take a single penny from benefits.”

But while labor leaders and progressives are celebrating the president's opening salvo as evidence Obama is ready to draw a hard line, White House officials are indicating the president is still likely to offer significant compromises as the negotiations continue.

Democrats thought the president gave up far too much in previous talks — including the 2010 extension of the Bush tax rates and the infamous 2011 debt-ceiling tango with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — which led to intense public criticism of Obama’s negotiating skills.

Republicans crowed after those agreements were struck. Boehner said he got 98 percent of the deal he wanted last year while Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the GOP called Obama’s bluff.

White House officials are now making a concerted effort to learn from their mistakes, presenting an early offer that asks for nearly everything that Democrats want, while refusing to outline any specific cuts or entitlement reforms. They also are making a concerted effort to communicate more effectively with liberal leaders.

Empowered by Obama's win and the automatic expiration of the Bush-era tax rates, Democrats believe they have presented Republicans with a sophie's choice between either explicitly outlining, and taking ownership of, unpopular cuts to popular government programs or taking the president's deal.

Still, the White House acknowledges a deal with Congress will need to include a give-and-take from both sides, including concessions from the left on entitlements and spending. On Friday, in a speech at a Pennsylvania toy factory, the president sent a strong signal to Republican leaders that "all of us will have to get out of our comfort zone" to make a deal happen.

"That's what compromise is all about," said one senior administration official, adding Boehner "will eventually have to go members of his party and say that 'This is compromise and it's in the best interest of the nation.’"

The official acknowledged that Obama will inevitably have to do the same.

"Generally speaking, that's the nature of compromise," the official added.

Asked if Obama will anger the base by compromising on entitlements, one source close to the White House said, “So what? He will do what’s best for the country, period. He did that with healthcare. He’ll do it again here.”

Observers, including those who had been a part of previous deals, say that Obama’s initial proposal offered on Thursday was a starting point and a wish list of sorts. But it was a way of at least temporarily giving a nod to left-leaning groups and unions, who say Obama should not compromise on entitlements after his sweeping reelection victory.

"I'm sure the proposal will probably be a honed a little more," said a former administration official, who predicted that a deal will be ironed out by Christmas.

So far, Obama's maneuvers are having their intended effect, with the president's proposal sparking wide praise from the left.

Bill Samuel, the government affairs director for the AFL-CIO says he and his colleagues are "encouraged" by Obama's proposal, which he deemed "very sensible."

"I think they have the support of the American people, whether you judge it by polling or the election results," Samuel said.

Chuck Loveless, the director of legislation at AFSCME, said, “The president and Democratic leaders in both the Senate and the House hold a strategic advantage, and so far are playing their cards right."

Republicans, meanwhile, have ripped Obama's request of $1.6 trillion in tax increases, and less than half that figure in spending cuts. Recent polling, however, indicates Republicans would take more of the blame should a fiscal-cliff deal not be passed by the end of the year.

Operatives in the Democratic base are pleased that the president has significantly greater leverage in this round of negotiations than he did in years prior. Unlike during the debt-ceiling negotiations, Republicans can no longer assume that the failure to strike a deal — and subsequent calamitous economic response — would result in the president losing reelection.

The danger for the president is that the renewed confidence among progressives could make an eventual deal tough to swallow. Green warned of a “nuclear war on the left” if Obama gives in on entitlement benefits, and top labor leaders said benefit cuts to Social Security or Medicare represent a red line.

In seeking a “grand bargain” with Boehner last year, Obama offered to raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67 and lower Social Security payments through a change in how the program calculates cost-of-living-adjustments. The deal with Boehner subsequently fell apart, but liberals were furious at the White House for putting those options on the table.

Allies of the president are optimistic that the final deal will capitalize on Democrats’ political edge, and see differences between now and 2011.

For example, the former administration official said during last year's debt-ceiling debate, Obama spent most of his time negotiating behind closed doors.

Now, duplicating his efforts in the payroll-tax debate last year, Obama has been making the case to the American people, as he did on Friday when he appeared at a Pennsylvania toy factory. The president has implored supporters to call their congressional representatives, and the White House a social media campaign asking supporters to tweet what a tax increase would mean to them.

On Friday, senior White House adviser David Plouffe sent another e-mail to the president’s campaign listserv rallying support for the president’s vision.

“Although this is a very serious situation we’re facing at the end of the year, the White House seems prepared to stick to their guns,” said Samuel.

At the same time, the president takes pride in his reputation as a pragmatist, and White House aides have repeatedly signaled there is some wiggle room in the negotiations. The difficulty in deciphering the true intentions of the president, and determining whether those concessions could again alienate liberals, lies in that remaining vague on possible cuts is the his best negotiating ploy.

It’s not clear whether Obama is truly prepared to reject unpopular entitlement cuts, or simply wants congressional Republicans to own them, but the White House definitively wants to avoid being tarred with unpopular policies.

"The table is set," the former administration official said. "It's just a matter of who's gonna eat what. Both sides are probably going to have to eat a little bit of something."