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Should Obama make peace with the left?

By Topic A
Friday, December 10, 2010; 7:00 PM

The Post asked political strategists and commentators if President Obama should make up with his base and, if so, how? Below are responses from Tony Fratto, Douglas E. Schoen, Matthew Dowd, Martin Frost, Mike Lux and Donna Brazile.

TONY FRATTO

Deputy assistant to the president and deputy press secretary from September 2006 to January 2009

This isn't junior high school. Any overt effort by President Obama to "make up" with the left will be seen for what it is: a transparent and cynical - even weak - contrivance. The president's base supporters will eventually come around and realize they can't possibly do better for their agenda. How would he make up, anyway? Apologize? Send flowers? Invite them to sit at his lunch table?

Maybe everyone needs to grow up a little, but it would help if the president would lead the way - as he promised to do. Those of us who, despite policy differences, were nonetheless hopeful Obama would act as the grown-up in the room have instead been subjected to an endless stream of angst-ridden whining - about the "24/7 echo chamber," "politics in Washington," the "mess he inherited," "Republican obstructionism," and the ungrateful "professional left." Not to mention name-calling - "enemies," "hostage-takers," "fat cats." Does anyone remember that inaugural call to "set aside childish things"?

The president could also do with a better sense of timing. He could have sent a strong message had he chosen to pick his fight with Democrats early in his term, not after they've been bloodied in electoral defeat. Instead, from the earliest days, with the design of the stimulus package and later with health-care reform, Obama allowed congressional Democrats to set the tone of his presidency. They would respect him more now had he called the tune himself back then.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

President Obama has to do what President Bill Clinton did with the left in 1996. He must make it very clear that while he is happy to listen to them and can probably do a better job communicating with them, for the Democratic Party to thrive and, indeed, to survive, it must fundamentally move to the center. The recent deal made between House Republicans and the White House, for example, offers an extension of all of the Bush tax cuts, but it also addresses important Democratic goals such as extending unemployment insurance for 13 months and providing tuition tax credits.

Obama's first goal must be to expand the economy and create jobs. Without jobs, we will not get out of the current economic crisis. If our economic situation does not improve, the president will not be reelected and congressional Democrats will undeniably suffer more losses in the 2012 election.

Obama must also do what Clinton did more generally, which is to offer a vision of the kind of America he wants. This vision should be based on a social safety net and compassion, but also on fiscal discipline. He must acknowledge that, unless we balance the budget and reduce the deficit, the country will be weaker and the Democratic Party will be weaker still.

MATTHEW DOWD

Political analyst for ABC News; columnist for National Journal; chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign

Looking at President Obama's political standing, he remains less popular but not yet vulnerable to a primary challenge. His numbers among his liberal and Democratic base remain very strong, with approval ratings in that group in the high 80s. Like former president George W. Bush, he is very well-liked by his base and immensely disliked by the opposite party. Obama's approval numbers would have to drop 10 more points before he realistically became vulnerable to a challenge from his base.

In the end, for his political standing and prospects for reelection, Obama needs to ensure that independents, who have left him over the past year, are represented in his agenda and their concerns met. And the biggest concern right now for independents is the economy and the United States being a place of optimism and confidence. During the 2008 campaign, Obama demonstrated that he has the capacity to speak in these terms, though he has lost his way recently.

If independents move back to Obama over the next 18 months and the economy improves, it doesn't matter what the Republicans say, whom they nominate or how upset liberals remain. Obama will win. My advice on dealing with his base today is for the president to address his administration to the hopes and beliefs of the mainstream of the country and give his base a forum for conversation and input along the way. In any relationship, one of the worst things you can do is be dismissive of someone who has stood by you through thick and thin. You don't have to do everything your partner wants, but you sure need to listen and be empathetic.

MARTIN FROST

Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 1995 to 1998; representative from Texas from 1979 to 2005

Obama and the left in Congress can and will work together next year after the current controversy over tax policy is resolved. Obama should concentrate on repairing relationships with key liberal legislators and not get preoccupied with liberal talking heads in the media. It's the members of the House and Senate who will influence the success or failure of his presidency in the next two years.

Let's not forget that Obama and congressional liberals worked together to pass sweeping health-care reform and financial regulatory reform in the current Congress. They still have much in common - and certainly much more so than the new crew that will be running the House.

Obama must reach out to personally involve key liberal legislators in policy decision making. He can and should do this on a regular basis, even if the end result is still compromise with Republicans. If he doesn't at least involve his base, he's in for big trouble as he loses critical allies who could otherwise have helped him advance his agenda.

There are lots of little symbolic things he can also do, such as standing in line for photo sessions with congressional and key political guests at White House receptions - something he is doing now but shunned for much of his first two years. Little things make a difference.

MIKE LUX

Democratic political strategist; special assistant to the president for public liaison from 1993 to 1995; author of "The Progressive Revolution: How America Came to Be"

Contrary to Washington conventional wisdom, President Obama doesn't have to choose between a "centrist" strategy designed to appeal to swing voters and a progressive strategy designed to appeal to the Democratic base. The facts from exit and post-election polling are clear as a bell: On the major economic issues of the day, swing voters and base voters overwhelmingly agree. Both groups want no benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare and no increase in the retirement age. Both want government focused on creating more jobs, especially manufacturing jobs and green jobs. Both want trade negotiators to be far more concerned about sticking up for American workers and not just corporate profits. And both see the big banks on Wall Street as the No. 1 culprit of our economic problems and want to see government fight for homeowners and Main Street business instead of the big banks.

So how does the president rebuild his relationship with progressives? Show some backbone in siding strongly with the middle class. Make clear that he is fighting - really fighting - on the side of regular people, not the big-money lobbyists in Washington. By doing that, he will not only rally progressives back to his side but will win back the middle-class swing voters he needs as well.

DONNA BRAZILE

Manager of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign; author and political commentator

Although he cannot just focus on Democratic priorities such as protecting the middle class and investing in education and green energy, President Obama must not abandon - nor should he attempt to take for granted - the base of supporters who propelled him to victory in 2008. These lawmakers and the voters who support them are just as crucial to his governing in 2011 as they have been to his winning support for so many controversial issues.

For two years, Democrats had the town to themselves - time Congress and the president wisely spent tackling an array of difficult issues such as the economic stimulus, health-care reform, the foreclosure crisis and banking reform. But with Republicans having won back control of the House, things have changed. The president must reach out and form meaningful relationships with the party whose members have berated him daily and belittled his accomplishments.

Yet while the president must find ways to work with the GOP, the administration also cannot be out there bashing House and Senate Democrats or others in the party. That will not do anyone, including Obama, any good. This president should remember the adage of the Congressional Black Caucus: We have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interest.

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