President Obama is stepping up his efforts to coalesce and energize the Democratic base for the 2014 elections, backing off on issues where his positions might alienate the left, and more aggressively singling out Republicans as being responsible for the country’s problems.
Voter turnout in midterm elections tends to be much lighter than it is in years when the country is picking a president, which means that it is crucial to maximize the enthusiasm of the party stalwarts who are most likely to show up at the polls.
That helps explain why, in several sensitive policy areas, Obama recently has moved to defuse tensions with his fellow Democrats.
Liberals are celebrating the president’s decision not to include a proposal to trim Social Security benefits in his 2015 budget, abandoning his previous stance in favor of making that part of a larger “grand bargain” to bring down the national debt.
And while the White House insists that it will continue to press Congress for more authority to negotiate trade deals — something that puts the administration at odds with the Democratic base, and with its own party’s congressional leaders — Vice President Biden this month signaled to House Democrats that it has no expectation that will actually happen.
Nor is the administration showing much appetite for bringing about a resolution to the question of allowing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, an issue that pits environmentalists against unions, both of which the Democrats will be counting on in November. A Nebraska judge’s decision on Wednesday rejecting the pipeline route in that state has raised the possibility that a decision may be delayed until after the election.
There remain some areas where Obama is at odds with key Democratic constituencies. For instance, he has resisted calls to reconsider policies that have resulted in a record number of deportations of illegal immigrants. Administration officials argue that easing up could undermine the president’s larger goal of overhauling immigration laws.
White House officials insist that their efforts to please the Democratic base do not conflict with appealing to independent and swing voters.
Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer noted that on many economic issues — raising the minimum wage, assuring pay equity for women, spending more on infrastructure and clean energy — polls show most Americans share the Democrats’ views.
“The position that is popular with the progressive base is the mainstream position,” Pfeiffer said.
As he seeks to rally the Democratic base, Obama — who will never again have to face voters himself — is striking a more combative and partisan tone.
At this point in the 2010 midterm season, Democrats were grumbling that Obama was not blunt enough in his criticism of the Republicans. In private meetings, Democratic congressional leaders begged him to quit blaming Washington dysfunction, and be more direct in lambasting the opposition party.
The president is showing no reticence to do so now.
In a speech Thursday night at a fundraiser for Democratic governors, Obama lavished praise on the state leaders of his own party.
On the other hand, he said, Republican governors have been “pursuing the same top-down failed economic policies that don’t help Americans get ahead. . . . They’re making it harder for working families to access health insurance. In some states, they’re making it harder even for Americans to exercise their right to vote.”
In past years, Obama has not been as critical of GOP governors. “Unfortunately, you can see it shaping up as a probably negative year,” said Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R).
Then again, Republican governors have been at the front lines of opposition to the new health-care law that ranks as Obama’s signature achievement. Only a handful have expanded their Medicaid programs as the Affordable Care Act encourages them to do.
Democrats argue that Obama is both rallying his own troops and accepting the reality that Republicans have no interest in making any big deals with him between now and November.
“It’s fair to say this is a unity agenda,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the House Democratic leadership.
But Van Hollen added: “What we are seeing is more a response to Republicans’ refusal to work with the president and move the country forward.”
They note that even when the president has made overtures in the past — for instance, by including in last year’s budget a proposal to change the formula for computing Social Security cost-of-living increases — he has been rebuffed by the GOP.
Last year, “the President presented a unique budget offering,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “There was a point in time when there was a little bit more optimism about the willingness of Republicans to budge on closing some tax loopholes. But over the course of the last year, they’ve refused to do that.”
Earnest added that despite the fact it will not be in the budget, “the offer remains on the table.”
There’s not much prospect, however, for serious discussions of that or any other major issue in the near future. House GOP leaders have indicated that they cannot muster the votes in their deeply divided ranks to pass anything ambitious, such as immigration overhaul, between now and the election.
Republicans insist that the intransigence is on the other side.
Last month, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other House GOP leaders sent Obama a letter pointing out several low-profile bills that align with Obama’s views and that have been passed by the House. Among them are bills that would allow workers to take comp time in lieu of overtime, consolidate federal job-training programs, and boost federal funds for pediatric medical research.
“Our argument would be that the president is unwilling to show leadership and take on his party on any issue of substance, and frankly, on any issues that are not substantial,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.