Progressives get ready to push the president

They'd rather fight for Obama, but if the White House wobbles on entitlements, expect "a huge backlash"

Topics: Democratic Party, Barack Obama, Democrats, Labor, Fiscal cliff, Progressives, "grand bargain",

Progressives get ready to push the president (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Fears that liberal disaffection would hurt Obama at the polls proved groundless last week when the Democratic base came out in force. But Obama’s honeymoon with the left may not last long.

The top priority for Congress as it reconvenes this week is to deal with the so-called fiscal cliff, and progressives are worried that Obama and congressional Democrats may agree to a “grand bargain” that includes cuts to social safety net programs, especially Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, or gives a tax break to the wealthy.

Progressive activists are now preparing to turn the firepower they marshaled to reelect the president against him if he looks like he’s backing down on his mandate, as they see it, to preserve the social safety net and raise taxes on the wealthy.

“Our members are really really fired up to fight alongside of him and fight Republicans who are holding the economy hostage,” Ilya Sheyman of MoveOn.org told Salon. “But at the same time, it is also true that we have a very clear bright line from our members on Social Security and Medicare. That’s the top priority for our membership and we’re staying fully mobilized.”

Hoping to avoid a fight, the White House invited the leaders of the biggest labor unions and major liberal groups to meet with the president today. “I’m really hoping that the president listens more than he talks at the meeting today and truly understands how fierce the opposition to these cuts would be,” said Alex Lawson, the executive director of the advocacy group Social Security Works. “I think that you would find a huge backlash.”

Led by the AFL-CIO, the progressives have presented a united front on two basic demands: No cuts to entitlement programs, and no reauthorization of the Bush tax cuts for higher income brackets. “If it’s bad for workers, it doesn’t matter to us who proposes it. We won’t be on board. We won’t be taken for granted,” Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO’s president recently told Salon’s Josh Eidelson.



“Some people in the White House think that compromise and bipartisanship for its own sake is a principle the American people will admire,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which boosts liberals in primary fights against moderate Democrats. “But there’s good compromises and there’s bad compromises, and if he cuts Social Security or Medicare, that would just be a huge betrayal of the mandate the American people gave him.”

Green said his group would “absolutely” mobilize against the president, including running TV ads, if it looks like he’s going to cut a bad deal. During a previous fight with Congress over taxes in 2010, the PCCC ran TV ads hitting Obama by merely repeating his own words opposing the Bush tax cuts.

Meanwhile the AFL-CIO is keeping its organizers in the field and MoveOn has not “taken a break” since the election, making preserving the social safety net the top priority of its field efforts, media campaigns, and email blasts to its 7 million members. Other activists invoked threatening primaries against congressional Democrats who vote in favor of entitlement cuts. Others invoked the Tea Party model.

“It really has people up in arms and they’re prepared to fight on these things,” Dean Baker, a liberal economist and the founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told Salon.

So far, the president seems inclined to use his newly acquired political capital, announcing shortly after the election that he will veto any bill extending the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000. But he’s been less clear about entitlement programs. A memo obtained by journalist Bob Woodward showed that during negotiations last year on raising the debt ceiling, the White House was prepared to entertain cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and TRICARE, the military health plan, as well as reduce tax rates on individuals and businesses. This has worried liberal blogs and activists.

“The president should absolutely not be trusted on the grand bargain,” said a senior liberal grass-roots strategist, who asked not to be named so as not to damage relations with Democrats. “It’s not hard to see where the president is on this. I think he has some kind of grand delusion about cutting Social Security and Medicare to save the country from some kind of crisis that doesn’t exist.”

In previous standoffs with Congress that have drawn pressure from progressives, the White House has been dismissive at best, and hostile at worst. In 2010, then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told The Hill that the “professional left … wouldn’t be satisfied [even] if Dennis Kucinich was president.” He went on to mock  liberal priorities in a way that conservatives often do:  “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.” Relations have since repaired between the White House and the “professional left,” but the alliance is still uneasy.

And activists will have some help from inside Congress as well. Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, the chairman of the House Progress Caucus, told Salon: “Progressives in and outside of Congress stand united: We will accept a deal from Republicans that preserves Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits for working families, calls on the wealthy to pay their fair share, requires the military to streamline its budget, and invests in jobs.”

The caucus, which will likely add a few members after last week’s election, put forward its own plan that mirrors the demand of the grass-roots groups. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a reliable advocate of social safety programs, is hosting a summit later this week to agitate in favor of preserving the programs.

Of course, it’s unclear how much leverage progressives really have with Obama. Any time you go up against a president, the deck is stacked against you — your only tools are protests, media campaigns, primaries, campaign contributions, etc. And of course the president is insulated from electoral pressure, since he’ll never have to run again.

Still, activists can certainly apply pressure to members of Congress to kill a bad deal or hold out for a better one, and they could conceivably drive down Obama’s approval rating — the president’s chief currency in Washington – by turning liberals against him.

If nothing else, strong and sustained pressure from the left should tug the political center of gravity somewhat in their direction, just as the Tea Party has done on the Republican side. If liberals can credibly threaten to scupper a deal, that gives Democrats more leverage to demand a more progressive agreement.

A concern now among activists is that their coalition will crack. Some said the White House has been quietly going around to various progressive groups to feel out where some might give. “There’s definitely a desire to try and fracture the left,” said Raven Brooks, the executive director of Netroots Nation, the coalition of liberal blogs that puts on the eponymous conference every year. “The key to preventing that from happening is to keep everyone together with the same clear bright lines and hold each other accountable … The important thing for activists is to present a united front on this.”

The president has proved to be a poor negotiator with Congress on several occasions in the past, but he’s never been in as strong a position as he is now — and he’s never had this much pressure from his left to hold him accountable.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>