Obama, White House seek to reassure base on debt ceiling talks

The White House is waging an aggressive behind-the-scenes campaign to reassure core Democratic activists, following weeks of criticism from liberals who fear that President Obama has given too much ground in his debt-ceiling talks with Republicans.

Senior aides are holding conference calls to take questions from leaders of black and Hispanic organizations, local elected officials, and other political allies nationwide. Obama spoke by phone this week to a group of college student body presidents to seek their help in lobbying for a compromise. And top economic advisers have huddled in the West Wing in recent days with pastors and advocates for seniors, children and the poor — including one session with Easter Seals and families it serves to discuss the importance of Medicaid to disabled children.

Some efforts have taken place in public, as well, with Obama assuring a conference of Hispanic activists this week that he is looking out for low-income people and telling a public radio show last week that “a lot of the spending cuts that we’re making should be around areas like defense spending, as opposed to food stamps.” Speaking to Univision Radio, in one of two Hispanic-oriented radio interviews last week, Obama described the fight to protect the poor and the elderly as a “debate about our values.”

The push comes at an unusually tense time on the political left, as liberals fret over how far a Democratic president might go in reducing once-untouchable programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

The White House effort, which involves stepped-up contact with Democratic lawmakers, appears designed not just to secure votes for passage of some kind of deal, but also to hold the party together coming out of the debt crisis and heading into next year’s election campaign.

“The White House is taking pains to make sure a broad range of advocates and service providers and faith groups are apprised of what they’re doing and get their rationale for why they’re doing it,” said Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, which advocates for aid to the poor and has participated in White House discussions. “Any group that they know there are constituents all over is important to them.”

White House officials say outreach has been stepped up to a wide range of groups in the Democratic base but also beyond it, to business organizations, veterans and advocates for military members, some of whom attended a recent White House briefing.

“There’s an intense interest in the discussions in Congress about reducing the deficit and preventing a default,” White House spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said. “As a part of that process, we have spent time meeting with groups from diverse backgrounds, whether it’s veterans and military service organizations or groups representing low-income families.”

Still, even as the president seeks to gain leverage against House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and other GOP foes, he has been forced to balance the competing demands of his own restive support network.

The pressure on Obama to embrace steep budget cuts has brought out rivalries among Democratic interest groups as advocates beseech the White House not to decimate their priorities.

The battle has played out most dramatically between those who advocate for programs to aid the poor and those who think Obama’s best political strategy is to present himself as a champion for the middle class.

Some advocates for the poor expressed disappointment this week when the president, in a prime-time address to the nation on Monday, repeatedly spoke out for working-class Americans but did not mention poverty programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and aid for women with infants.

Political strategists are advising the White House to frame the debate in terms that will appeal to independent swing voters, who are considered crucial for Obama’s reelection effort next year in battleground states such as Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Colorado. A strategy memo published this month by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, for example, recommends focusing on how GOP-backed cuts would threaten services to seniors, Medicare and food-safety inspections.

But just as important to Obama’s reelection bid is building enthusiasm among liberals — particularly among Hispanics and African Americans, groups that are struggling economically more than whites and stand to be directly affected by reductions to low-income programs.

Those groups have been Obama’s most loyal backers. And high enthusiasm among minorities in key states, particularly in the Hispanic-heavy West, is a central piece of the president’s reelection strategy. But new Washington Post-ABC News polling suggests that budget talks and the economy may be straining that relationship — and shows why White House officials feel the need to step up the outreach.

Although Obama’s overall approval rating among blacks remains high, 57 percent of African Americans surveyed in the poll said Obama is too willing to compromise with Republicans in budget talks. Combined data from recent Post-ABC polls put Obama’s overall approval rating among Hispanics in the low 50s, about 20 points lower than it was two years ago.

On Wednesday, some black and Hispanic lawmakers indicated that their frustration with Obama goes beyond the debt talks to their belief that he has not done more to stem poverty and unemployment in their communities.

“We’ve got to march on him,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). “We’ve had it. We want him to come out on our side and advocate.”

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said the White House and top Democrats often act as though “poor people don’t have the political power in this nation to shift the discussion and that we must appeal to independents.”

Consternation gripped many liberals last week, when it appeared Obama was nearing a “grand bargain” with Boehner that would have slashed trillions in spending. The speaker walked out on the deal, but several liberal advocates typically aligned with the White House said in interviews that they had planned to fight the proposal had Boehner not abandoned it.

Earlier this month, amid concerns that the president was not sufficiently shielding health-care programs for the poor, about a dozen advocates appealed in a 90-minute meeting to White House senior advisers to make Medicaid a higher priority. Part of the pitch: that voters see value in helping seniors and disabled children.

Staff writer David Nakamura and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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