Can Obama Manage Liberal Backlash Over Budget?

Has President Obama, the man who made even the dourest of liberals smile in 2008, finally made the left not just grouchy but downright angry? And will it come back to bite his party in the midterms this fall? Leading liberals in the blogosphere, the labor movement, and the think tanks say it might.

It's not hard to understand the psychology. Imagine you are a 60-year-old lefty. You came of age in the late 1960s, rallying for peace and a more just society. The story of your adulthood has been one of persistent societal decline. First Richard Nixon, then Ronald Reagan, then Newt Gingrich, then George W. Bush seized the country, ground progress to a halt, and often reversed it. Elect a truly liberal president, an intellectual, multiracial former urban community organizer, say, with a strong electoral mandate and large congressional majorities, and our Treasury should be filled with the taxes of hedge-fund managers. The EPA should be doing a brisk business selling carbon credits in no time.

The hopes that you would have laid on Obama were thus extraordinary, stoked by the grandiose conjecture of political pundits that Obama's election may signal a Rooseveltian or Reaganite paradigm shift in the polity. Obama's moderation, from choosing a centrist, bipartisan cabinet, to choosing a hawkish path on Afghanistan, quickly brought liberals down to a grumpy reality. But they set about supporting the president's plans for economic stimulus and health-care reform, and trained their ire at Republicans who threatened to filibuster at unprecedented levels and Democrats like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson who extracted enormous compromises from the White House.

But with Obama's announcement in his State of the Union address, delineated in his budget released Feb. 1, that he wants to freeze domestic discretionary spending for three years, he may have finally caused his base to lose its patience. Liberal activists say the Democratic Party may suffer if their base stays home or simply refuses to engage in the grassroots donating and volunteering that helped propel Obama into office.

"This doesn't signal anything that is going to fire anybody's imagination," says Robert Kuttner, coeditor of The American Prospect magazine and a senior fellow at the Demos think tank. "It's one thing to do small-bore stuff in 1995 when Republicans have taken Congress and the economy is OK. [The spending freeze] is completely contradictory in terms of the need to have a second round of stimulus spending. The White House is not interested in spending that much money on jobs and recovery. Obama's base, all the volunteers—if you look at blog traffic and e-mail traffic among Democrats, people are just beside themselves, this is so feeble."

Indeed, former Labor secretary Robert Reich writes at Politico of the proposal: "Wall Street is delighted. But it means Main Street is in worse trouble than ever. A spending freeze will make it even harder to get jobs back ... His three-year freeze on a large portion of discretionary spending will make it impossible for him to do much of anything for the middle class that's important." And left-wing Web site Firedoglake's instant reaction was more outraged: "Obama is basically saying that the stimulus fixed the economy, that there will be no further government support measures and that he'll govern like a hybrid of John McCain and Herbert Hoover for the rest of his term to curry favor with the deficit maniacs."

Liberal activists point to the risk the Democrats run of looking inconsistent and uncertain in perilous times. "What happens when voters hear 'spending freeze,' then see Democrats working on a second much-needed stimulus?" asks Markos Moulitsas, founder of the massively popular left-leaning blog Daily Kos in an e-mail. "Voters are clearly cynical about the Democrats' ability to govern, and political stunts like this one won't help turn such perceptions around."

"Obama is tacking in multiple directions," concurs Kuttner. "It reads like something that was poll driven. The poll says people care about the deficit, so you do something on that. It doesn't create the impression that the president is on your side—he stands for everything and nothing."

Mainstream political and economic writers have also expressed befuddlement and irritation at the political and policy wisdom, or lack thereof, of Obama's proposal.

This comes in the midst of a developing failure to push health-care reform, a prize liberals have been eyeing since at least Harry Truman's presidency, across the finish line when it has passed both houses of Congress. As Jesse Singal argued, one group essential to Obama's coalition, young voters, may be turned off by that. Likewise, Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein asked whether the Democratic base would be wise to teach their party a lesson by staying home if health care doesn't pass. Poll results released Feb. 2 showing that Democrats would do better in the midterms if they pass health care is sure to reinvigorate the exasperated clamoring from the left. (A Twitter hashtag #passthedamnbill has been gathering steam for weeks.)

The White House, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not respond to requests for comment.

Some of the most influential liberal leaders though, are measured in their response to the proposed spending freeze. "My difference with the president is that I think that there should be broader review," says Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). "Everything should be on the table, nonrelated to national security. We should look at the Departments of Defense and State. Twenty billion dollars per year [the projected savings from a discretionary domestic spending freeze] is symbolic but not sufficient."

And Stern adds a cautionary note for Democrats: "If we don't pass health care and have real jobs, it is hard to imagine our members—who are issue voters, not Democrats or Republicans—it's hard to imagine them feeling like the change they voted for has happened, especially in the Senate. In '94 it was almost impossible to get our members excited by that midterm."

"What happened in '94 is people sat on their hands, and unless Obama starts delivering, that's what will happen this fall," predicts Kuttner. And everyone in Washington knows what happened back then.

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