By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 10:34 PM
On the heels of the Democratic Party's huge losses in last week's midterm elections, liberal activists have begun planning to push President Obama on a series of issues, demanding that he not cede any ground to Republicans.
Liberal groups have blasted Obama at times over the past two years as not being sufficiently dedicated to their positions - history that factored into their criticism of the White House on Thursday for signaling that it will compromise with the GOP on the issue of extending tax cuts that are scheduled to expire this year.
And when Obama and Congress return to Washington next week, gay rights activists will call for the president to take a stand against "don't ask, don't tell," the policy that bars openly gay people from serving in the military. A repeal of the ban passed this year in the House but has stalled in the Senate.
This push from the left could complicate Obama's strategy as he tries to cope with the GOP gains in Congress.
In his post-election remarks, the president has repeatedly expressed worries about "gridlock" in Washington. He has signaled that he wants to find big issues on which to compromise, with an eye toward his reelection campaign in 2012.
But that signal has not gone over well with the liberal base. Nor did comments Wednesday by top Obama adviser David Axelrod, who told the Huffington Post that "we have to deal with the world as we find it." Liberals viewed the remarks as suggesting that the White House would accept a temporary extension of tax cuts for family income above $250,000. (The White House played down the remarks and said no formal decision has been made.)
"Democrats are not going to be a rubber stamp for deals [Obama] cuts with the Republicans in the House or the Senate," said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "Part of the battering we got [on Election Day] was about not being able to show our base we had done enough."
Before leaving on a trip to Asia this week, Obama emphasized his support for repealing "don't ask, don't tell" and not extending the tax cuts for upper-income Americans. But neither he nor his aides have said he would veto legislation that did not conform with those goals.
The threats from the left come as the Democrats are debating what happened in the midterm elections and how Obama and the broader party should react.
In an echo of intraparty discussions in 1994 and 2004 after major Republican victories, some Democrats blame what Obama called the "shellacking" on a massive defection of independent voters, caused by the recession as well as an agenda of policies such as health-care reform that scared away moderates.
"I don't think Russ Feingold lost because he wasn't liberal enough," said Matthew Bennett, a vice president at Third Way, a group that urges Democrats to focus on such issues as deficit reduction.
Bennett was referring to the liberal Democratic senator from Wisconsin who was easily defeated last week.
But those on the left say the reason young voters and minority voters - who were crucial to Obama's victory two years ago - didn't turn out in large numbers was their disappointment with the president and congressional Democrats.
They say a larger economic stimulus bill and more legislation that could have abated the recession would have stemmed the party's losses.
"Voters didn't blame Obama for causing the recession, but they punished Obama and Democrats for not fixing it," said Robert L. Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future. "If the recovery plan was bigger and had done more, then we would have done better."
White House officials are likely to push some issues, such as education reform, that could result in bipartisan agreement, but they have not signaled whether Obama will back initiatives targeted at swing voters, as President Bill Clinton did after his party's midterm defeat in 1994.
In the House, the debate may already be resolved. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), campaigning to remain the chamber's top Democrat, has repeatedly defended every decision on legislation Democrats made over the past two years and blamed the party's loss of the House entirely on the recession.
Liberal activists have embraced her view, and Pelosi is unopposed in her bid to lead House Democrats.
The activists now want to win that same argument with the White House.
When preliminary proposals by leaders of the bipartisan deficit commission emerged Wednesday, Adam Green, head of the Progressive Campaign Change Committee, criticized White House officials' response that they would reserve judgment.
Green praised Pelosi, who called the commission leaders' proposal to cut Social Security benefits "unacceptable."
The White House has long bemoaned what it considers unreasonable expectations from what press secretary Robert Gibbs mockingly referred to as the "professional left."
Obama told CBS's "60 Minutes" after the elections: "One of the things that I think it's important for people to remember is that, you know, this country doesn't just agree with the New York Times editorial page."
Liberals say they don't have unrealistic expectations; rather, they think the president is too eager to compromise.
Now, they argue, the stakes are higher, as the debate is not about whether to make legislation more liberal but how to stop Republicans from achieving their goals.
Obama "needs to look for ways to work with the left," said former Vermont governor Howard Dean, a former presidential candidate who occasionally criticizes the administration as not being progressive enough. And in dealing with the GOP, Dean added, "you have to be a hard bargainer."