Obama reaches out to liberal groups to shore up Democratic base after tax deal

Christine O'Donnell said she was not a witch, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) cried, and Gov. Jan Brewer (R-Ariz.) paused. These were just some of the highlights from the 2010 political year.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2010; 12:15 AM

In the wake of President Obama's tax-cut deal with Republicans, the White House is moving quickly to mend its strained relationship with the Democratic base, reassuring liberal groups, black leaders and labor union officials who opposed the tax compromise that Obama has not abandoned them.

On Friday morning, hours before the president signed into law the $858 billion package extending George W. Bush-era tax cuts as well as jobless benefits, White House aides e-mailed leaders of the black community to hail the compromise as a "major victory for African Americans."

Friday afternoon, Obama hosted a group of union presidents in the Roosevelt Room for what participants described as a cordial meeting in which the two sides agreed to look beyond their differences.

One participant in the 90-minute session said the group asked Obama to help establish a "formalized structure" of communication between the White House staff and the labor movement. The tax deal came up only briefly when Obama explained the benefits of the deal to workers.

"There's been some uncomfortable moments and some large amount of disagreement about substance and tactics," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal activist group. "But they know some parts of the base are angry with them, and they're trying to make the case why this [tax compromise] is the best deal they could get."

The White House faces challenges in soothing the raw feelings. A number of liberal activists said in interviews that the tax deal further depleted their confidence in the president, and they worry he will give ground on other issues to work with newly empowered Republican leaders and shore up the political middle.

Hickey's group sent a warning to activists Friday suggesting Obama, left to his own devices, might join with the GOP to cut Social Security benefits to trim spending and avoid raising the federal debt ceiling - a move it warned would "shatter his grassroots base" and lead to "political suicide." Liberal concerns were heightened when the leaders of Obama's bipartisan deficit commission recommended Social Security cuts.

Hickey said he and other liberals have raised such concerns in private sessions with White House officials but have received no clear assurances. "The responses we get are ones that leave their options open," Hickey said.

Another liberal movement leader, Daily Kos blog founder Markos Moulitsas, said he "long ago" cut off contact with the White House. "It's clear that they want to double down on their capitulation strategy," he said in an e-mail.

Criticism from left

Liberal groups were part of the broad coalition that helped elect Obama in 2008, and activists had high hopes that he would govern as a left-of-center president. But tensions with the White House increased as many liberals complained Obama took a more centrist view on issues.

They criticized him for not pushing harder for a government-run insurance option as part of his health-care overhaul, for example, while some viewed his economic team as too closely tied to Wall Street banks and voiced frustration that his economic stimulus plan was too small. Obama further angered some activists in announcing the initial tax deal, accusing some on the left of being "sanctimonious" in their opposition to compromise.

Much of the White House's interaction with liberal groups has taken place at a weekly Tuesday meeting at a downtown Washington hotel. The "common purpose" gatherings are closed-door sessions between top Obama aides and officials from dozens of left-leaning interest groups such as unions, youth voting groups, women's organizations, gay rights advocates and civil rights activists. Attendees are required to keep all proceedings secret and off the record.

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