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How liberal 'triumphs' on Syria and Summers have weakened Obama (+video)

Liberals are feeling their oats after Obama's retreats on Syria policy and the expected Summers nomination. That could cost him as he negotiates with Republicans over government funding.

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Liberal disappointment with Obama has been simmering for years: On health-care reform, the president never pushed for a “single-payer” system, in which health care is financed by the government; Obama has pushed the envelope on civil liberties, largely continuing President Bush’s national security policies, and in some cases enhanced them, such as with the use of drones; on banking reform, liberals complain that the Dodd-Frank Act has fallen far short of protecting consumers.

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Obama’s defenders say his record is plenty progressive (and note that many on the right mock him as a “socialist”): He pulled the nation back from the brink of economic collapse with the biggest stimulus bill in history; passed the first major health-care reform in decades; ended the war in Iraq; and is winding down the war in Afghanistan. He raised taxes on the wealthy, and has become a champion of gay rights.

But when Obama began rattling sabers at Syria, over its alleged use of chemical weapons on its own people, that was too much for many war-weary Americans – not just liberals. And when the president turned to Congress last month for authorization of limited airstrikes on Syria, liberal voices in both houses – joined by libertarian-leaning Republicans – made clear they wouldn’t go along.

A last-minute diplomatic deal saved Obama from a vote he was likely to lose.

The rebuff of Mr. Summers, whom Obama was believed set to nominate as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, reflects another blow to the president’s clout.

At least four Democratic members of the Senate Banking Committee – including three progressives, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Jeff Merkley of Oregon – had all made clear they would vote against Summers. Objections included his opposition to the regulation of derivative markets when he was Treasury secretary in the 1990s; his prickly personality; and comments he had made as Harvard president questioning women’s aptitude for math and science.

Summers, a former top Obama economic adviser, withdrew his name Sunday. Published reports indicate he believed the president’s inability to drum up support in Congress on Syria did not bode well for his chances in the Senate. “Any possible confirmation process for me would be acrimonious,” Summers said in a letter to Obama.

For liberals, the Syria and Summers episodes signal a new approach as the president once again prepares to do battle with a divided Congress over government funding and the debt ceiling.

“The question is, does the increasing restiveness of what we call the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party mean that [Obama] will have a greater backbone in this debate?” says Mr. Borosage. “Certainly I think there is less willingness from progressives in Congress to provide votes for a lousy deal.”

Also on the calendar is the Oct. 1 opening of the enrollment period for health insurance under Obamacare – a key milestone in a law that Republicans are still pushing to defund or repeal. Some Republicans say that if the health-care law is not delayed or repealed, they will not vote to fund the government or raise the debt ceiling.

Despite some Democrats’ feeling that Obamacare isn’t as progressive as it could have been, they rally to the president’s side when the law is under attack. On Monday, Obama played off hard-line Republicans at an event marking the fifth anniversary of the financial crisis.

“I cannot remember a time when one faction of one party promises economic chaos if it can’t get 100 percent of what it wants,” the president said.

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