The backlash President Barack Obama faced from Democrats on both Syria and the prospect of Lawrence Summers leading the Federal Reserve underscore intraparty rifts that threaten to limit his room to strike budget and debt deals.
“There’s a large and growing portion of the Democratic Party that’s not in a compromising mood,” said William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.
Summers, one of Obama’s top economic advisers during the first two years of his presidency, withdrew from consideration for Fed chairman after a campaign against him led by Democratic senators who criticized his role in deregulating the financial industry during the 1990s.
That came just days after the Senate postponed deliberation on a request by Obama to authorize U.S. force in Syria, amid opposition from Democratic and Republican lawmakers wary of a new military action in the Middle East.
The two controversies raised “central issues” that divide Democrats at a time when the president needs unity to confront Republicans, Galston said. “The White House better make sure it and congressional Democrats are on the same page” as lawmakers face deadlines on government spending and raising the debt limit, he said.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said today that Democrats are united with Obama on the need for a “clean” debt-ceiling increase. The anti-Summers movement reflected “strong feelings that many of us have” about making the Fed more responsive on issues such as income inequality, he said.
Republican leaders are dealing with their own divisions. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, had to pull back a vote last week on a plan to avoid a partial government shutdown in October after it became clear it couldn’t win enough support from members of his own party.
Congress and the Obama administration are facing fiscal decisions that include funding the government by Sept. 30 to avoid a federal shutdown and raising the nation’s $16.7 trillion debt ceiling. Boehner said in July that his party wouldn’t increase the borrowing limit “without real cuts in spending” that would further reduce the deficit. The administration insists it won’t negotiate on the debt ceiling.
For Obama, the dissent on the left was already brewing before the Syria and Summers debates.
Congressional Democrats and union leaders accused him of being too eager to compromise with Republican demands to cut entitlement spending after he released a budget proposal that called for lower annual Social Security cost-of-living adjustments.
Some early Obama supporters also were disappointed that the president, who has relied on drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists and failed to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, hadn’t moved far enough from George W. Bush’s policies on civil liberties and national security. The complaints grew louder after the disclosure of National Security Agency surveillance practices this year.
Obama, who earlier this year watched his gun-control legislation fail in the Senate partly because of defections by Democrats from Republican-leaning states, also is limited in his capacity to enlist public support to win over lawmakers.
His job-approval rating was down to 45 percent in the Gallup Poll for Sept. 9 to 15. That’s about the same as the 46 percent that Bush had in the comparable period of his presidency, Sept. 8-11, 2005, immediately following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the New Orleans area.
By contrast, Clinton had 58 percent job approval from Sept. 25-28, 1997, and Ronald Reagan 60 percent from Sept. 13-16, 1985, according to Gallup.
Still, Joel Johnson, a former aide to Clinton and to onetime Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, said Obama’s ratings “are not dangerously low.”
The fissures among congressional Democrats exposed by the Syria and Summers controversies are “apparent for anyone to see, but I don’t make much of it,” Johnson said. “Presidents struggle with the left and the right of their own caucuses constantly.”
Johnson added that congressional Democrats have shown no signs of fracture in their support for Obama’s signature health-care law in the face of a sustained Republican attack. Republicans have made calls to delay or defund the law their most visible demand in the fights over funding the government and raising the debt limit.
A battle fought along those lines may help Democrats overcome differences and unify the party, Johnson said.
“There’s no denying that he’s hit a rough path recently,” agreed Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “But I’m confident -- once attention is focused on the budget and debt-limit related items -- that Democrats in the House and the Senate will be marching in lockstep with the president.”
Presidents now have fewer tools to enforce discipline on members of their party, accelerating their political weakening in their second terms, said former Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, who previously headed the House Republican national campaign apparatus.
The growing influence of partisan media and outside groups that can spend large sums on elections has eroded the influence of presidents and congressional leaders, Davis said.
‘Scared to Death’
“Leaders in both parties have kind of lost their ability to twist arms,” he said. “Members are scared to death of the interest groups coming after them.”
Obama doesn’t have a reservoir of personal relationships with Democratic members of Congress to draw upon, said former Representative Jason Altmire, a Pennsylvania Democrat.
“What I heard time and again when I was there is people were trying to compare him to past Democratic administrations,” said Altmire who lost a 2012 primary battle. “The comparison was often made that President Clinton was more friendly on a personal basis and made more of an effort to reach out.”
Altmire predicted that winning the loyalty of Democratic lawmakers who had been around since the Clinton years was “going to be an ongoing challenge for the president.”