News reports from a variety of places -- and my own personal report-backs from participants at yesterday’s progressive organization leaders meeting at the White House -- indicate that the President is signaling loudly that he will stand strong on at least some of the very highest priority things that progressives care the most about in the fiscal showdown talks.
He continues to demand that the Bush tax cuts for those making over $250,000 go up; he said yesterday in the progressives meeting that Social Security was “off the table”; and he said that while he believes there can be Medicare and Medicaid savings from a variety of administrative methods, that he had no intention of cutting benefits. We don’t know how all of this is going to end up, but right now at least, the President has decided that in unity there is strength.
This doesn't come as a big surprise to me. In a conversation a couple of months back with a senior White House official, we were talking about the fiscal showdown politics, and I was emphasizing that there would be a serious civil war in the Democratic Party if Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid were cut -- that our side wasn't going to back down on this fight. His response was that the Obama team had learned from the past that the administration was in a far stronger position if they were unified with progressives, that they felt that was when they had gotten things done and had been in stronger political shape than when they had tried to triangulate things.
Now, before you get too excited about that statement or take it as gospel, keep in mind something I learned early when I worked in the Clinton White House: There is no one White House political strategy or philosophy about how to do things. There are a lot of different players in a White House, and almost always several different views on how to get things done or play things out. I’m sure there are still people in that building who think it is smart politics to pick fights with the base, or who wish the “professional left” would just go away. But I do believe that there is a clear trend in the White House toward thinking it is better for Democrats to be unified in policy fights with the Republicans, simply because they keep getting rewarded politically when they are.
Look at some of the big political decisions this White House has made in the second half of the first term. When it came to prioritizing the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and endorsing marriage equality, there were advisers that argued against those actions because of how it might hurt with swing voters; same with the decision to stop deporting the DREAM Act young people. When Obama decided to put out his own deficit reduction budget proposal last fall, there were Democrats strongly urging that it include cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits as a goodwill gesture to the Republicans and to show the President was “centrist”; when the President was getting ready to unveil a major new jobs initiative, there were advisers, worried it would look too government-oriented, who urged it be scaled back; when the President took a turn toward middle class populism with the Osawatomie speech, Third Way Democrats cringed, and from what I hear it might have been the final nail in the coffin for Bill Daley as White House Chief of Staff, as he was uncomfortable with the approach, fearing it would drive away business support.
In all of these cases, though, the president was rewarded for these decisions. The LGBT community, after being unhappy with him earlier, rallied behind Obama with support and money more than any other President in history. Fired up by the DREAM decision, Latinos turned out in bigger numbers and voted for the President in bigger numbers than in 2008. And the President’s populist approach on economics and message paid off big time in both firing up the President’s base and winning over working class swing voters.
We don’t know how this fiscal showdown is going to play out. Progressives have to fight with all their strength against any deal, supported by the President or not, that cuts Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits and doesn't hold the line on repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. But the President seems to be understanding more and more that in unity with his progressive base, there truly is strength.