White House asks: What rift with left?

Greg Nash

The White House on Monday defended its standing with liberals after a series of high-profile rebukes, arguing that recent fractures were more circumstantial than evidence of a trend.

White House press secretary Jay Carney was peppered with questions at his press briefing on Monday about the president’s inability to rally lawmakers behind air strikes against Syria or the Federal Reserve candidacy of former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers.

Carney refused to even acknowledge the conflict and sought to highlight the comity between the president and liberal lawmakers.

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On Syria, Carney said that Obama understood and sympathized with Democrats hesitant to authorize military force. He said the president, too, was wary of military action after Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The president made clear that he has a deep understanding for that kind of reluctance,” Carney said.

Carney also brushed off questions about the opposition to Summers from liberal Democrats, which led Obama’s close economic adviser to remove his name from consideration for the Fed job.

Carney said the financial collapse focused attention — and frustration — on Summers, who was grappling with a menu of “almost universally unpopular” choices to stabilize the economy when he served as Obama’s top economic adviser.

Obama’s friction with the left has come at a crucial and dangerous period for the White House. Critics have suggested with increasing volume that the president, mired in a second-term slump, may be losing the support of the progressive base that has underpinned his electoral success.

They say the president’s inability to win over his allies in Congress on arguably the biggest foreign policy and economic decisions of his second term illustrate either that Obama is a lame duck, or that his third-way neoliberalism has fallen out of vogue with the young progressives who now dominate the Democratic Party.

Last week, the AFL-CIO adopted a resolution harshly critical of the way the president was implementing Obama-Care. Earlier this summer, top Democrats openly questioned why the president had doubled down on surveillance programs begun during the George W. Bush administration. Even external events, like last week’s Democratic primary victory for progressive Bill de Blasio over establishment candidates in the New York mayoral race, have been cited as evidence of shifting sands.

The White House and Democratic strategists insist the differences are overblown.

Democratic strategist David Mercer said progressives know Obama has come through, pointing to everything from healthcare to Dodd- Frank. 

“I’m not sure the fences are broken,” Mercer said. “Yes, there was vocal opposition to Larry Summers and sentiments expressed with regard ... to Syria. But, the president, as we see unfolding in front of us now, has used everything in the toolbox to address the use of chemical weapons. I don’t see where the resentment can lie on engaging Congress.” 

A top Obama donor said he hadn’t been frustrated by the White House’s approach.

“Can I remind everyone that he was the guy who got healthcare done? He was the guy who brought an end to two wars,” the donor said. “I mean, these guys shouldn’t be complaining. How soon people forget.”

Still, others caution that Obama should be sure to pay attention to his base.

“More so now than ever, he needs to give them a sense of where he’s going in his second term and how the debt ceiling and the budget relates to that,” Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said of the progressive base. “He needs to show moving forward that he’s making progress on some key issues.” 

Lehane pointed to environmental issues like the Keystone pipeline as “low hanging fruit” that could really please progressives. Obama is under pressure from the left to reject the pipeline, which would stretch from Alberta to the Gulf Coast.

“While there’s a limited amount of things he can do on immigration and gun control, taking a position on Keystone would impact the progressive base,” Lehane said. “Right now, despite the fact that healthcare and ending the wars are huge accomplishments that will stand the test of time, they feel like one-offs.”

Summers’s decision to drop out of the running for the Fed represents an opportunity for Obama to make up with the left.

The president is now free to appoint Fed vice chair Janet Yellen, a candidate widely praised by progressives as independent from Wall Street.

Still, one top House Democrat said Obama has spent too much time catering to progressives. 

“He extended unnecessary capital on the progressives,” the Democrat said. “It may be too late to use that on the debt ceiling, the budget and other issues coming up.” 

The Democrat said that Obama is the commander in chief and “did not need permission” from Congress on Syria simply because “he wants to share the blame.”

“So why, during this time of multiple crises, is he wasting time and capital on this?” the Democrat pondered.