Before he left town for the holidays, President Obama hinted at opportunities for both showdowns and collaboration with the GOP in the new Congress — but as he prepares to seek re-election, his own base is telling him they need to see him rumble rather than dance with Republicans.
Fight-starved activists, who say they have little faith in talk alone, are vowing to hold Mr. Obama’s feet to the fire on priorities like protecting entitlements, drawing down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and making another run at immigration reform.
“He got elected on the wave of a very mobilized and excited grass-roots base, and the anti-war movement was part of that base, as was the environmental movement and many people in the immigration movement,” said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink. “All of us are feeling either deeply disappointed or simply demoralized; and if he isn’t able to excite the base, he’s going to have a problem in the re-election.”
The president returned Tuesday from nearly two weeks in Hawaii, and he’ll quickly exchange his low-key vacation for what’s likely to be a rough-and-tumble year taking on the GOP, which has expanded its numbers in the Senate and is taking control of the House.
Mr. Obama expects to spend much of the next two years defending his first two years’ achievements from Republicans repeal efforts, but has also said he wants to try to find common ground on education and jobs, as well as see through his troop surge in Afghanistan and his troop drawdown in Iraq.
But with his own re-election approaching at the end of next year, he’ll also have to worry about appeasing members of his Democratic base, many of whom felt betrayed by his year-end deal with Republicans on tax cuts. The compromise, which critics on the left saw as a premature capitulation, sparked some rumblings of recruiting someone to challenge Mr. Obama in the Democratic primary but no one has come forward.
Indeed, even as Republicans say last year’s election has shown voters want him to take a new direction, Mr. Obama’s own left flank is calling for him to be the candidate they powered to a sizable victory in 2008.
In the run-up to last month’s tax fight, more than 170,000 people signed an online petition drafted by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee urging the president to “FIGHT, don’t cave” on his vow to let rates rise for the wealthy. Mr. Obama ended up agreeing to temporarily extend all tax-rate cuts in exchange for concessions from Republicans on unemployment benefits and other middle-class tax breaks. The PCCC and other supporters called Mr. Obama’s move a betrayal.
And Code Pink activists remain a regular fixture at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — just as they were during the Bush administration, whom they protested over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Mr. Obama vowed on the campaign trail to refocus American attention to Afghanistan, he arguably won the Democratic presidential nod in part for his opposition to the Iraq War; and his escalation of the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan took some progressives by surprise.
Asked what kind of “big stick” she and fellow opponents of the wars can use as leverage if Mr. Obama fails to withdraw the remaining 50,000 troops in Iraq and draw down forces in Afghanistan, Ms. Benjamin puts it succinctly: “Our ‘stick’ is just sitting on our hands.”
The biggest threat from the left would be a primary challenge to the sitting president. A similar challenge by Patrick J. Buchanan in 1992 hurt President George H.W. Bush’s re-election chances.
But speaking on CNN over the weekend, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine pegged the chances of any “serious primary challenge” at “virtually nil.”
And the numbers back him up. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Poll revealed that Mr. Obama’s support among the party remains strong, with 78 percent of Democrats surveyed saying they would like to see him re-elected — a five-percent jump from days before the November elections.
Nevertheless, Mr. Obama is facing pressure on a range of issues important to his liberal base. Hopes of climate-change legislation were dashed when a bill that would have set up a cap-and-trade system passed the House but failed in the Senate. Mr. Obama all but admitted defeat on the proposal after his party’s “shellacking” at the polls in November, but his administration is moving forward with a plan to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions through executive branch regulations.
Meanwhile, environmental groups panned the administration’s decision to lift the deep-water drilling moratorium it instituted in the aftermath of the BP oil spill, although the process of issuing new permits has remained stalled, according to media reports.
Immigration activists, recently disheartened by the lame-duck Congress‘ defeat of a bill that would have laid out a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants, want to see Mr. Obama make good on his campaign pledge to sign a comprehensive immigration bill. And union supporters are still waiting for action on several of their priorities, even though Mr. Obama wasn’t able to get their agenda through with Democrats in control of both chambers.
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