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

By Peter Wallsten
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.

Some liberals have criticized the gatherings, saying the White House uses the sit-downs to steer the left instead of taking its advice. Jane Hamsher, publisher of the liberal Fire Dog Lake blog, has likened the meeting to being in a "veal pen."

But since the Democrats' midterm election losses, the administration has also tried a more personal approach. Environmentalists were invited to a White House strategy session on how to combat what activists predict will be a flurry of pro-industry initiatives from the GOP-run House.

Also last week, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner hosted a dinner for officials from several civil rights groups, including the NAACP, the Urban League and the National Council of La Raza. The groups pressed him for administration action to help the poor on housing and credit issues, according to a participant.

Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, said outreach on the tax deal to groups, bloggers, talk show hosts and community leaders began immediately after the compromise was announced this month. He said the White House has reminded liberals about the bill's provisions intended to help middle-class families, such as guaranteeing unemployed workers in hard-hit states up to 99 weeks of jobless benefits through the end of next year and providing a two-percentage-point payroll tax cut that will, in effect, give workers a raise after New Year's.

'Triangulation'?

Pfeiffer sought to dispel the notion that Obama's dealmaking with the GOP was a form of "triangulation" in which the president was seeking to anger the base in order to shore up his standing with the middle in service of his 2012 reelection campaign.

He said Obama has delivered on a number of liberal priorities, including the health-care overhaul. Pfeiffer also cited Obama's work leading up to Saturday's Senate vote to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"Many of the groups that disagree with us on this [tax] deal are also strong allies of ours on other causes," Pfeiffer said in an e-mail. "That relationship doesn't end here. There will be more battles to fight and more causes to champion together in the coming months. We don't expect our friends to agree with us all the time just as they don't expect us to agree with them all of the time."

A Washington Post-ABC News survey showed nearly seven in 10 liberal Democrats favored the deal overall, though a majority of them opposed the provisions extending Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

But other numbers suggest the party's base has cooled a bit on the president since the midterms. The latest Post-ABC poll found that 87 percent of liberal Democrats approve of the way Obama is doing his job, close to the 90 percent average for the year but a drop from his 94 percent approval rating in that group shortly before the election.

Support has even lessened slightly among African Americans, Obama's most stalwart constituency, with just two-thirds of blacks now saying they strongly approve of his job performance, a low point in his presidency. Eighty-eight percent of blacks approve overall.

The White House e-mail to black leaders Friday included a three-page "fact sheet" titled "The Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010: A Win for African-American Families." It said "an estimated 2.2 million African American families will benefit" from the tax deal. The e-mail went on to say the extension of jobless benefits will benefit 1.1 million blacks.

Standing near the president at the bill signing was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has defended Obama against critics who have argued he has not done enough to help African Americans. Afterward, Sharpton got hugs from Obama and Vice President Biden.

Liberal organizers said they hope the White House will want to work closely with them. But Ilyse Hogue of MoveOn.org wondered if Obama's top aides appreciated the potential political damage to his 2012 chances if the party's liberal base feels left out.

"If this administration has a pathway to victory that cuts out the sort of core constituency that has been fighting with him and for him, I'd like to see it," she said.

Polling director Jon Cohen and staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.

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