Obama Debt Deal Shakes Supporter Trust Heading Into Election

Obama Debt Deal
President Barack Obama arrives to make a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Aug. 2, 2011. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Democratic lawmakers are openly questioning whether they can trust President Barack Obama to cut future deals with Republicans, while disappointment among party activists is raising doubts about their investment in his 2012 re-election campaign.

“Come on, got any other jokes?” cracked Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, when asked if Obama bargained hard in negotiations with congressional Republicans.

After Obama backed off his demand for new revenue in the deal that passed the House last night to raise the debt ceiling and cut the deficit, several lawmakers said they don’t know whether he can be counted on to stand firm on raising taxes on the wealthy and protecting programs such as Medicare.

“There was caving this time,” said Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat. “Why don’t you think there would be caving next time?”

As the Senate approved the compromise today with a 74-26 vote, the months-long debate that brought the government to the brink of a default on its obligations took a political toll on both parties. The Republican base isn’t cheering every element of the agreement, with 66 of the party’s lawmakers voting against the deal in the House. The decision by House Republicans to stage a showdown didn’t sit well with the public, either.

In a July 20-24 Pew Research Center poll, 66 percent of respondents disapproved of the job Republican leaders in Congress are doing, while 25 percent approved. By comparison, 48 percent disapproved how Obama is handling his job and 44 percent approved.

Party Support

Still, Republican lawmakers yesterday generally applauded House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, for negotiating the best deal they could.

The Obama administration, Engel said, takes congressional Democrats for granted. “They figure that House Democrats are in the minority, so we’re just around from the ride,” he said.

The loss of confidence in Obama by Democrats in Congress comes after the president backed off a series of demands during negotiations, clearing the way for a vote to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.

At various points, Obama insisted that raising the debt ceiling and cutting the deficit not be linked and that new revenue must be a part of a deal -- both positions he abandoned when Republicans refused to comply. Obama also surprised his allies when he put Social Security and Medicare temporarily on the table.

Next Round

The timing of the party dissension is important because it may diminish the president’s leverage as Congress begins negotiating cuts in entitlements and changes in the tax code.

As part of the package that initially cuts $900 billion from the budget, Congress will create a bipartisan 12-member committee that is charged with delivering recommendations for an additional $1.5 trillion in spending reductions by November.

In addition, a fractured or less enthusiastic base may weaken Obama politically in what is likely to be a tough 2012 re-election campaign amid U.S. unemployment rate that the administration and most private economists project will be above 8 percent.

While Obama is unlikely to face a serious primary challenge, complaints about the debt agreement among Democratic Party activists come on top of frustration over the health-care law that they criticized for not going far enough and Obama’s willingness to extend Bush-era tax cuts last year.


“Our members worked very hard to elect the president,” said Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, an advocacy group that claims 5 million members. “Many of them are disappointed.”

That could translate to a reduced intensity of support for Obama in 2012, Ruben said. “People may just not be inspired to hit the streets,” he said. “There is a bit of a credibility problem.”

Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., an Illinois Democrat who has a close relationship with Obama, said the president made “a profound mistake” in signaling to Republicans that programs for the elderly and the poor are on the table for cutting.

“It’s clear to us we’re going to have to go to the mat for those people -- as we have been doing -- by ourselves and not necessarily with the support of the administration,” he said, referring to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security recipients.

A Bad Taste

Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, said Obama “tried his best to make sure we didn’t default, but that doesn’t mean the medicine isn’t so strong that it just tastes awful.”

Obama’s 2008 campaign was fueled by his promise for dramatic change in Washington, as well as the sense of history associated with the possibility of electing the nation’s first black president. Even without disappointing his most ardent supporters, recreating that energy -- to mobilize volunteers and push voters to the polls -- was going to be a challenge for the incumbent.

“After two and a half years of the presidency, the glow that many of them felt the night of the Iowa caucuses or the night of his general election has certainly faded,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who advised Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts in the 2004 presidential election.

Doug Schoen, a former strategist for President Bill Clinton, said Obama is losing the confidence of supporters because he isn’t governing with a clear philosophy.

Politics and Principles

“It’s less about losing a loving feeling than seeing a person who is veering from issue to issue, cause to cause, more out of politics than on principle,” he said.

Still, Devine said energy behind Obama in 2012 will depend some on who the Republicans nominate.

“If we have a Tea Party nominee for the Republican ticket, I think we’ll have a lot of enthusiasm for Obama,” he said.

In a video released by his campaign yesterday, Obama tried to sell the deal to his supporters, while also acknowledging that the outcome was “far from satisfying.”

In a Rose Garden appearance today at the White House, Obama said the budget can’t be balanced in the “backs of the very people who have borne the brunt of this recession.”

‘Enormous Leadership’

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters yesterday that Obama’s standing wasn’t diminished in the debt debate.

“The president showed enormous leadership through this process,” he said.

Obama had the most to lose politically had the nation defaulted. It would have been the first time in the nation’s history and could have provided a significant political weapon for his adversaries.

By being part of a deal that will slash government spending by $2.4 trillion or more, Obama could be able to sell himself to independent voters as a deficit-cutter.

“This is one of many rounds of the battle we are going to have about the vision for the country,” said John Lapp, a Democratic strategist. “I am confident that progressives will rally for President Obama.”



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