President Obama and the heads of several labor unions and prominent liberal groups met at the White House on Tuesday at an event that was more pep rally than negotiating session.
Obama and the participants largely focused on areas on which they agree: in particular, the need to extend low tax rates for the middle class while letting them expire for wealthier households, according to people who attended the 45-minute meeting.
There was much less talk about possible areas of disagreement between Obama and his progressive partners, such as on cuts to entitlement spending.
“The president has been very clear for quite a while now on the tax cuts on the wealthiest 2 percent — that they need to be eliminated,” said Dennis Van Roekel, the head of the National Education Association (NEA). “Of course, there was no disagreement in that room.”
The meeting was billed as a chance to discuss the best ways to move the economy forward while finding a balanced approach to reduce the deficit, and it took place as lawmakers and the White House wrangle over how to handle tax hikes and spending cuts that take effect in January.
The heads of four of the nation’s largest unions —the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the NEA and the AFL-CIO — were all in attendance. So were representatives from prominent progressive groups, including the Center for American Progress and MoveOn.
Obama will host a second White House meeting on Wednesday with business leaders including the CEOs of Ford, General Electric and Wal-Mart.
Republicans are demanding that Obama accept entitlement reforms and spending cuts as part of a deficit-reduction package, while the president has said he will only agree to a compromise that includes higher taxes on the wealthy.
The White House and many Democrats believe that Obama, owing to his reelection victory, has leverage in the talks. Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerRift widens between business groups and House GOP Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Debt ceiling games endanger US fiscal credibility — again MORE (R-Ohio) last week suggested a willingness to consider raising tax revenue, while over the weekend GOP pundit Bill Kristol suggested an openness to higher taxes on the wealthy.
“The mood of labor leaders and progressive leaders is pretty positive right now,” Van Roekel said. “A lot of good things have happened, and that sets the stage for this very well.”
He added that the election’s outcome was “not just about who was elected, but about values. The voters had the choice of having Medicare by vouchers, and they rejected that. They had the choice of cutting Social Security, and they rejected that.”
At the meeting itself and in conversations afterward, activists were keen to stress agreement with the president on the tax issue.
“It was a great meeting. The president was really standing firm on taxes. Everyone talked about how much they have the president’s back in this fight,” Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, said afterward.
Attendees said Obama was “very clear” on where he stood on taxes. “He’s not just clear, he didn’t just draw a line in the sand, he spray-painted it,” one participant said.
The activists first met with the president’s economic team, headed by Gene Sperling, along with senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, before being joined by Obama and Vice President Biden. Obama began the meeting by expressing his gratitude to union leaders and the other progressives for their efforts in securing his reelection.
Tanden said there was “a lot of energy” at the meeting and that there “wasn’t fighting” in the room. But participants — including some women’s groups — also had an opportunity to air some of their concerns as the president “mostly listened,” observers say.
Obama “wasn’t talking about what was on or off the table” and didn’t discuss specifics in terms of Social Security, one participant said.
During the meeting, participants said they briefly touched upon issues such as sequestration — the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts set to begin in January under last summer’s congressional deal to raise the debt ceiling — along with Medicare and Medicaid.
“There was some concern that policies like Medicaid needed to be protected,” one attendee said.
Obama told the participants that the “campaign isn’t over,” and asked for their help.
It is the kind of assistance that the activists are only too happy to provide.
“We are keeping our folks active and ready to go,” Van Roekel said. “It’s not just about the 535 people who are in Congress. They ought to be making a decision that’s right for 300 million Americans. And we intend to hold their feet to the fire.”