Obama Tries to Drum Up Liberal Enthusiasm

Posted September 17, 2010 at 6:16pm

President Barack Obama is finally trumpeting the issues that are among the most important to his base — gay rights, immigration reform and middle-class tax relief — in his latest shift in strategy to try to boost Democrats’ prospects in November.

Whether Obama can excite liberals to head to the polls simply by reiterating support for their top causes remains to be seen. But the president — and House and Senate Democratic leaders — know that midterm losses could be more severe if he doesn’t gin up some party enthusiasm.

Obama will be cheering on Majority Leader Harry Reid this week as the Senate takes up a defense authorization bill that includes language repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and, if the Nevada Democrat gets his way, the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who serve in the military or get a college degree. Reid is planning to offer an amendment to add the immigration measure to the bill.

The defense bill, under threat of a GOP filibuster, isn’t likely to go anywhere with those provisions in it. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called their inclusion “a pure political act for Harry Reid, who is worried about is own re-election and that of the Democrats in the Senate.” Reid is facing a difficult bid for a fifth term in Hispanic-rich Nevada.

But that’s not keeping Obama and Democratic leaders from heeding the calls of many liberals to press ahead anyway. And the president isn’t stopping there: He has spent recent weeks pushing a message that he’s fighting for the middle class, insisting that the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts be extended for families earning less than $250,000 a year but not for the wealthy. Another nod to liberals came when Obama named Harvard University economist Elizabeth Warren to help lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—an appointment they have been advocating for months.

“We did it!” a Friday e-mail to supporters of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee about Warren’s appointment proclaims.

“This is a HUGE victory. … For the first time, progressives successfully pressured President Obama to select the most progressive option on the table,” the e-mail reads.

Obama is also trying to keep his base excited about what Congressional Democrats were able to accomplish over the past year and a half, including health care and financial reform.

“We have had the most productive, progressive legislative session in at least a generation,” the president told attendees Thursday at a Democratic National Committee event in Connecticut. He drew laughs from the crowd when joking about Democrats tending “to see the glass as half empty” when it comes to chalking up all they have done.

“If we get an historic health care bill passed, oh well, the public option wasn’t there. If you get the financial reform bill passed, then well, I don’t know about this particular derivatives rule, I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with that. And gosh, we haven’t yet brought about world peace. I thought that was going to happen quicker,” he joked.

[IMGCAP(1)]But Obama also had a serious message to those in the audience: “When you are talking to your friends and your neighbors and your co-workers, I want you to feel good about the support that you’ve provided.”

Not that the president is going to be able to deliver on everything he has his hands in. It remains to be seen if Democrats have the votes to push through
middle-class tax cuts without also extending relief to higher-income earners. Democrats may have to push that debate —and many other issues — off until after Nov. 2, taking it up in a lame-duck session.

Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg predicted last week that Reid would not be able to pass anything in the next few weeks, save a continuing resolution to keep the government funded.

“I don’t see us doing a heck of a lot around here,” the New Hampshire Republican said.

But as long as Obama keeps plugging his party’s core issues and pleasing base voters along the way, it may not matter whether anything actually advances in Congress.

Recent polls project Republicans could win the 39 House seats they need to take over the chamber. Republicans face a steeper but not impossible climb in the Senate, where they would need to pick up 10 seats to win control.

David Plouffe, Obama’s political adviser, said earlier this month that what Democrats “really have to do” to secure their hold on Congress is charge up their base to vote.

“Republicans are very enthusiastic about voting. We have to get more Democrats enthused about voting. I think laying out the stakes of this election, the real choice — that they’re not just going to bring bad ideas, they’re going to roll back all that the president and his party’s accomplished,” Plouffe said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

A Senate GOP leadership aide said he was “really surprised” to see Democrats pivot to their core issues so close to the elections.

“I just think they’re desperate. They’re just trying to make sure their base shows up at least” on Election Day, the aide said.

But a Senate Democratic aide pointed out that Obama’s and Reid’s use of the Senate floor to promote issues favored by the Democratic base is nothing new and has proved effective.

“For the first year and a half you govern, and then the last half a year you campaign. Show the contrast. Show who we stand for and show who they stand for,” the aide said.