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Presidents and Their Political Bases Don't Always Sing From The Same Song Sheet: Obama and His Democratic Base are a Prime Example

05/18/2015 10:13 am ET | Updated May 18, 2016
NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images

President Barack Obama is engaged in a feverish effort to shepherd the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a free trade treaty between the U.S. and 11 other nations) through the U.S. Congress. The preponderance of the opposition to the pact comes from the Democratic Party base. Obama is battling environmental advocacy groups, labor unions, and his own party's Congressional leadership, including U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

If passed, this agreement will be a major legacy item for the president. Ironically, for a president who won the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination with the support of the left wing of the Democratic Party, much of his presidency has been spent battling and trying to persuade liberal Democrats into supporting his policies.

Obama's flagship legislative achievement was the Affordable Care Act of 2010. To get the measure through the Democratic Congress, Obama importuned liberal members of Congress who favored a single-payer health insurance system to support the act, which did not even include a public option. In fact, it provided subsidies to private health insurance companies and granted them 31 million new customers.

Obama put out a full-court press to get liberal stalwart U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) to vote for the bill. A reluctant Kucinich agreed to support the proposed legislation, affirming: "I have doubts about the bill. I do not think it is a step toward anything I have supported in the past. This is not the bill I wanted to support."

During his first year in office, Obama withstood opposition from the left when he ordered an additional 68,000 troops to Afghanistan. He recently announced that nearly 10,000 troops would remain in the country into 2016. Obama has also faced excoriation from the left for his expanded and ambitious use of predator drones in the Middle East.

Interestingly, many presidents are defined in history by the times they stood against the bases of their own parties.

There are eerie parallels between Obama and the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. One of Clinton's signature legislative achievements was the passage of The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Though Clinton had not focused on the issue during his presidential campaign, he spent much of his political capital promoting the treaty. Liberal Democrats wanted him to spend that political capital on health care reform rather than on getting NAFTA passed. The president and his team worked feverishly against the Democratic House leadership, including Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) and Majority Whip David Bonior (D-MI), to get the votes of enough rank-and-file Democratic members to get the treaty passed. U.S. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen quipped: "I courted some of these congressman longer than I courted my wife."

Furthermore, in 1996, to the consternation of the liberal base, Clinton signed legislation which ended welfare as an entitlement program. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) called the legislation "the moral equivalent of a Dear John letter to poor people." U.S. Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) bemoaned "My President -- he's a winner -- and the kids are the losers." Mary Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children's Defense Fund, said: "President Clinton's signature on this pernicious bill makes a mockery of his pledge not to hurt children."

A year later, Clinton signed the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which his team negotiated with the Republican Congressional leadership over the objection of the Democratic Party's base, including Gephardt. The act cut discretionary spending by $77 billion and reduced taxes by $135 billion.

Republican Presidents have also defied their political bases on occasion. Though Ronald Reagan cut taxes in 1981, the federal budget deficit skyrocketed, and the next year, to the chagrin of conservatives, Reagan signed the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, which raised taxes by $37.5 billion annually. A year later, Reagan, working with the liberal U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-MA), signed legislation raising the payroll taxes and truncating Social Security benefits to wealthy recipients in an effort to preserve the program.

Reagan's greatest legislative coup was the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with the Soviet Union. The treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched intermediate range ballistic and cruise missiles. At the time, there was vociferous opposition from the Republican base. U.S. Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), a long-time ally of the president, averred: "The President doesn't need to discard the people who brought him to the dance." In fact, sixty conservative organizations signed a petition admonishing that the treaty would bring the United States "Into strategic or military inferiority." In fact, conservatives ran newspaper advertisements comparing the treaty to the 1938 agreement in Munich, Germany between Adolph Hitler and British Chancellor Neville Chamberlain. The ads read: "Appeasement is as unwise in 1988 as in 1938."

Republican Gerald R. Ford was ridiculed by hardliners in his own party for signing the Helsinki Accords. Under this agreement (also signed by the Soviet Union and 33 other nations), each country agreed to respect the autonomy of every nation-state in Europe and not encroach upon their territory. Ford withstood a redoubtable challenge in the Republican primaries by former California Governor Ronald Reagan who said the Helsinki Accords put a "stamp of approval on Russia's enslavement of the captive nations."

In the spirit of détente (relaxation of tensions with the Soviet Union), Ford accrued a firestorm of indignation for refusing conservative overtures to meet with soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of Gulag Archipelago. The conservative Wall Street Journal blasted the decision as "the most unworthy decision of his tenure."

Going further back, Theodore Roosevelt spent much of his presidency fighting his Republican base, most notably battling with U.S. House Speaker Joe Cannon (R-IL). Cannon was a "standpatter" who thought the federal government should be a limited-purpose entity. He often remarked: "The country don't need any legislation." Contrariwise, Roosevelt was a progressive Republican who favored a more activist federal government. The two men clashed over much of Roosevelt's domestic agenda, including the presidents' successful effort to preserve conservation lands. Cannon asserted: "Not one cent for scenery." In addition, Cannon, a strict Constitutionalist, complained: "Teddy Roosevelt has no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license."

The standpatters, distraught with Roosevelt's progressive policies, were plotting a challenge to his nomination for a full-term by supporting U.S. Senator Mark Hanna (R-OH). Financier J.P Morgan, who mustered what in contemporaneous dollars would be about $340 billion, was offering to finance Hanna's campaign. However, Hanna succumbed to typhoid fever, allowing Roosevelt to garner the party's nomination unopposed.

In 1883, Republican President Chester A. Arthur, in an impavid but politically suicidal move, signed into law the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. The act requires the hiring and promotion of federal employees based on merit rather than on political connections. The law also made it a crime to raise political money on federal property.

Mr. Arthur was a member of the "Stalwart" faction of the Republican Party, which opposed Civil Service Reform. He was offered the Republican Vice Presidential nomination by James Garfield, a supporter of Civil Service Reform, to balance the ticket. When Arthur assumed the Presidency upon the untimely death of President James Garfield, Arthur made the Pendleton Act his number one priority, challenging and taking on his base and shepherding the legislation through the Congress. As might be expected, Arthur became an apostate to his former Stalwart backers. This inflamed U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling (R-NY), Arthur's political mentor. Consequently, Arthur did not muster "Stalwart" backing in the 1884 Presidential nomination sweepstakes and did not garner the GOP presidential nomination.

Barack Obama is certainly not the first president to challenge and even oppose the positions of his political base. The current battle over the Trans-Pacific Partnership showcases a classic struggle between a president and his political base.