So the marriage has been a little rocky here after the first couple of years. There's been some whining and screaming and throwing of plates; there's been some flirting with other suitors. But I still believe there is plenty of time to patch things up. Where does the relationship between Obama and the progressive community go now?
The answer will come down to the following things:
1. The response to hostage taking. The president set himself up with progressives, and the media in general, by using the hostage language. Because the president seemed to concede the fight early, and because of the terms of the deal, the perception among my fellow progressives has been that the Republicans got most of what they wanted on the tax cut fight, that the terms of the deal were set by them rather than the President. In other words, by his very own language, he gave into the hostage takers. Now every time the Republicans threaten a showdown -- on the debt ceiling, on the budget fights, etc -- he is going to look weak if he doesn't stand up to them at least in part.
Compromises will have to made in divided government, but who gets the best of the compromises matters enormously. In 1995, President Clinton managed the compromise dance by having protracted showdowns with the Republicans at multiple key moments -- threatening vetoes, delivering vetoes even when they shut down the government. Even on welfare reform, which he eventually signed, he vetoed the first two versions of the bill the GOP passed, forcing real concessions before he agreed to sign it, which made it look like he was in charge.
Obama has to manage fights with Congress so that it looks like they are making compromises on his terms not the Republicans, which is what Clinton did on the budget fight and welfare reform. If Obama looks weak, if he looks like he is folding to the Republicans' main demands, progressives will rebel in a way that makes the tax cut reaction look like it was a big endorsement. The concession to Republicans on the tax cuts will smart for a while, but it will be forgiven if Obama shows strength and guts and resolve in future showdowns. And maybe he should just get started early: announce now that he will not allow the credit and financial standing of the United States to be held hostage, that he will only accept a clean, no amendment extension of the debt ceiling next year.
2. The response to the deficit commission. If the President decides to embrace all of what the deficit commission chairs proposed, including Social Security and Medicare cuts and an increase in the retirement age, all hell will break loose. Based on the conversations I have had with folks in the progressive community, this will be nothing like the tax cut deal, where progressives were actually quite divided because of the urgency of getting unemployment comp extended.
There is nothing in the deficit commission report progressives like well enough to be able to stomach cuts in Social Security and Medicare, the most core components of progressive movement identity. If Obama does this, it will truly be crossing the Rubicon, going on a bridge too far (and every other cliché imaginable). It would virtually guarantee a well-funded primary; it would provoke attack ads by Democratic base groups; it would generate millions in online contributions to groups and blogs to fight Obama. It would be civil war within the Democratic Party, the big one.
Along with the civil rights legislation of the mid 1960s, Social Security and Medicare are the ultimate achievements of the modern progressive movement, providing senior citizens (and the children who take care of them) a modest safety net as they grow older. Progressives will never sign off on cutting benefits for elderly Americans, most of whom make less than $20,000 a year with their Social Security, or raising the retirement age for working class folks who work long hours at demanding jobs if they are lucky enough to get full time employment at all. There are plenty of policy compromises and rhetorical moves to the center progressives could live with: this ain't one of them.
3. The response to the loss of immigration reform. For the last two years, the Obama administration has cracked down on undocumented immigrants, driving up deportations to record numbers. They have argued to Hispanics and progressives that doing this was the only way to get the political cover needed to pass comprehensive immigration, or more recently the DREAM Act.
With the sad death of the Dream Act last week and a far more anti-immigrant Congress coming to town in January, any hope of legislative progress on immigration is dead. Obama making preemptive concessions without getting Republican support on this and several other issues has become a real sore spot for progressives in general, but doing it on this issue is inflaming arguably the most politically volatile part of Obama's base. Hispanic voters turned out in big enough numbers, and voted strongly enough for Democrats, to save a bunch of western Senate, Governor's, and House seats for the party this time around, and they are going to be badly needed to do the same in 2012 for Obama to have a chance in states like FL, CO, NV, NM, AZ, and OR.
If Obama sticks with the tough-on-deportation political strategy while showing no progress on immigration overall over the next two years, it will irritate the entire progressive community, but it will enrage his Hispanic base most of all.
4. Which side is he on? On the most fundamental economic issues of our time -- jobs and the foreclosure crisis -- progressives along with middle and working class swing voters need to be convinced that the president is on their side. Because of TARP, the revelations about AIG's bonuses and paying back banks like Goldman in full, the administration not putting the big banks into receivership or demanding concessions from banks in return for saving them, because of opposing attempts to break up the banks during financial reform, and most recently, because of not supporting a freeze on foreclosures or other strong accountability measures on banks engaged in foreclosure fraud, progressives and middle class voters feel like the administration hasn't held the banks to account, hasn't been on their side when the banks are running roughshod over homeowners and regular folks.
It feels to a lot of progressives and working class folks like the president has fought hard to save the banks, but not for jobs or to help homeowners being victimized by bankers. Nothing would repair the breach between progressives and the White House more than taking actions on the foreclosure crisis that showed they were clearly, strongly, unequivocally on the side of the middle class instead of the banks on this foreclosure. As I have argued before, it is the great sleeper issue in American politics over the next two years. And in terms of the jobs issue, the president isn't going to have much success getting new jobs measures though Congress, but there is a great deal that the executive branch can do to promote a strong jobs agenda, and in every speech the president needs to be pushing everybody -- his own agencies of government, Congress, the private sector, even the non-profit sector -- to have a single-minded clarity about creating new jobs.
Corporations need to be pushed to spend some of last year's record profits on producing jobs. Banks need to be pushed to invest in and lend money to businesses that want to hire new workers. Non-profits need to be given incentives and grant money to help them hire more people. President Obama needs to be seen as fighting for jobs in every single thing he does, and he needs to be seen as taking a stand on behalf of workers and homeowners against banks that are taking advantage of them, and companies sitting on big profits but not hiring anyone.
Today, the president had a great signing ceremony of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". His speech was as strong and fired up as anything I have seen in a while. On that issue, it took a long time to get it done, with lots of frustrations along the way, and both the White House and the LGBT community had a lot of tense crabby times with each other. But through persistence and being aggressive, it got done. The president needs to carry that fire and that spirit forward in working with the broader progressive community. There aren't going to be a lot more clear progressive legislative victories over the next couple of years, but the President has plenty of time to rebuild the singed and broken bridge to the progressive community. He needs to show strength in dealing with the Republicans; he needs to not embrace things that progressives hold most dear; he needs to not move to the right on issues when there is no corresponding concession from the other side; and he needs to make crystal clear whose side he is on. That is not going to be easy with the Republicans running the House, and the David Broder's of DC constantly calling on him to move to some kind of mystical DC center with Republicans who keep moving the goalposts back. But this President still has plenty of opportunity, even in a divided government that will call for some compromise, to show progressives he is on their side in the things that matter the most, and they should be on his.
No president has ever won re-election with an estranged base, because it is a president's base that fights your battles for you, that stands with you and defends you when times get tough and the other side is on the attack, that gives you money and knocks on doors for you and talks neighbors and co-workers into voting for you. Mr. President, you can get your base back and you need to. If you show you are on our side, we will be on yours.