Obama allies press Republican lawmakers to accept higher taxes
By Peter Wallsten,
White House aides and allies are turning parts of President Obama’s reelection machinery into an outside-the-Beltway campaign to pressure Republican lawmakers to accept higher taxes on wealthier Americans, according to people familiar with the planning.
As of Thursday, at least 100 Obama campaign staff members had been recruited into the effort, hired by various state-level liberal activist groups after being connected by the Washington-based Common Purpose Project, an outside organization closely aligned with the White House.
“These are a bunch of really talented staffers who as of last week were unemployed,” said a person familiar with the planning.
The effort comes as Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) have signaled a willingness to compromise ahead of a new round of negotiations over taxes and spending that will start at the White House on Friday.
It also offers the first sign that Democrats see another chance to try to turn the president’s vaunted political apparatus into a more permanent grass-roots movement. A similar attempt after Obama’s 2008 victory produced mixed results.
The plan calls for the former campaign organizers to orchestrate protests in front of lawmakers’ offices and set up phone banks to call constituents, among other things, according to people familiar with the evolving strategy.
The effort will focus on GOP lawmakers from multiple states — including Kentucky, Maine, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia — that are home to Republican leaders or members who are considered moveable on taxes. It also involves a new Web site, theaction.org, which will serve as a hub for the tax fight and future campaigns.
The plan reflects the post-election confidence that Obama has displayed in recent days — a sense of strength that was nonexistent the last time he tried to strike a deal with GOP leaders in the ill-fated summer of 2011. At a Wednesday news conference and in a string of meetings with liberal allies and corporate executives, Obama has said that he finally has the bargaining upper hand that eluded him last year, when talks over a possible “grand bargain” to fix the country’s debt problems broke down in what was a low point in his presidency.
“The election is over. The campaign is not over,” Obama told union presidents and liberal group leaders gathered in the Roosevelt Room for a Tuesday meeting, according to several people familiar with the conversation.
Obama assured allies who are worried about potential spending cuts that he will remain true to their shared “North Star.” And where last time he considered the talks a delicate, Washington-centric negotiation between himself and Boehner, this time he encouraged his friends in organized labor and other liberal groups to put the squeeze on Republicans — particularly on his push to let George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy expire at year’s end while extending them for income under $250,000.
The tax fight, set to unfold during the lame-duck session of Congress that will begin next week, marks an area of total agreement between Obama and his allies as the president and GOP leaders try to avert the “fiscal cliff” — a collection of deep spending cuts and expiring tax breaks that stem from last year’s negotiations and could hobble the economy next year.
What remains unclear is whether Obama’s stronger position will ultimately yield what many of his allies would consider a better deal than the one the president entertained last year. It included some sacred-cow entitlement cuts such as smaller cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients and billions in Medicare savings achieved by raising the eligibility age.
Obama “didn’t engage” on those questions when they were brought up during his Tuesday session with liberals, said a person familiar with the discussion. The president offered some assurances on Social Security, saying the program should be discussed only in the context of its long-term solvency and not as a source of additional short-term revenue, according to several people familiar with the meeting – yet he gave softer assurances on Medicare .
The back-and-forth left many White House allies in the room feeling good about the state of play but uneasy about whether Obama would end up at the 2011 deal, which many liberals opposed.
That discomfort left some uncertainty as to how closely the new White House-aligned mobilization in the states would coordinate its grass-roots efforts with those of unions and other liberal groups that are planning to mobilize their forces ahead of the negotiations. Some of those groups have expressed a willingness to turn their fire on the White House if Obama agrees to cut entitlement programs.
GOP aides pointed to Obama’s remarks Wednesday, which, despite any post-election bravado, still indicated a desire to compromise with Republicans in key areas. The GOP aides pointed out that failure to strike a deal in the coming weeks would mean tax increases for all Americans, and that Obama risks being blamed as much as Republicans do.
White House officials declined to comment on the specifics of their strategy or the president’s interactions in recent days. But they made clear that although the impending round of talks is in some ways a sequel to the 2011 drama, Obama is not necessarily picking up where he left off.
“We have entered a new phase with this negotiation, and while the president has been very clear that he will compromise and do tough things to reach a solution, he will insist that solution has balance and asks the wealthiest to pay their fair share,” Amy Brundage, a White House spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
Obama has called for a quick action to retain the tax breaks for 98 percent of U.S. households while letting the tax cuts for wealthier Americans expire. He wants $1.6 trillion in fresh taxes from high-income earners over the next decade. Republicans have warned that any tax increases would threaten the country’s already fragile economic recovery, but have expressed a willingness in recent days to consider a deal that would bring in additional tax revenue in exchange for cuts to health and retirement programs and a rewrite of the tax code to bring rates down.
Democrats think the battle that will be fought in the final weeks of 2012 will give Obama his best chance to maximize the role new taxes will play in whatever possible grand bargain might be worked out next year.
Whereas in 2011 Obama’s main task was “damage limitation,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, he can use his leverage at a critical moment.
“If Republicans are not willing to compromise over the next six weeks, imagine on January 2 a president saying to the country, ‘I’m working hard to get tax relief for 98 percent of the country, but Republicans are saying that unless high earners get a bonus tax break, no one gets any tax relief,’ ” Van Hollen said. “Then imagine he says it on January 3, January 4, January 5 and on.”
John D. Podesta, chairman of the White House-aligned Center for American Progress and a participant in the Tuesday meeting, said he was struck by Obama’s “complete lack of fatigue” after the grueling campaign.
“He was energized,” he said.
“The only other guy I know who ran on raising taxes who actually won was Bill Clinton in 1992, and he went ahead and operated on that pledge and it led to good results,” Podesta added. “And I think the president comes off this election with the clarity of having no surprise that this is what he wants. He goes into the dialogue with a strengthened hand.”
Another participant in the Tuesday meeting, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said Obama has been freed up from many of the political calculations that remain for his GOP foes.
“Everyone else has to worry about their next election, and he doesn’t have to,” Van Roekel said.