Fiscal cliff: for Obama and liberals, a wary alliance

After a White House meeting Tuesday, liberal leaders expressed confidence that President Obama would make sure fiscal remedies don't hurt middle and low-income Americans. But entitlements are still on the table.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, center, accompanied by Justin Ruben of, left, and Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees International Union, speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, Tuesday.

After meeting Tuesday with President Obama, liberal activists seemed confident of one thing: the president will stand firm in his quest to end Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy and extend them for the middle class at year’s end.

"We are very, very committed to making sure that the middle class and workers don't end up paying the tab for a party that we didn't get to go to, and the president is committed to that as well," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters after the meeting.

But negotiations between Mr. Obama and congressional Republicans over the “fiscal cliff,” which begin on Friday, involve more than income taxes and deductions. The social safety net is on the line, and progressive groups, including big labor, are on high alert. The meeting with the president may have centered as much on warning him against making concessions on big social programs as on supporting him over tax hikes.

In fact, for the liberal activists who helped reelect Obama, the campaign isn’t over.

MoveOn is staying fully mobilized after last week's election,” Justin Ruben, executive director of Political Action, said in a statement after meeting with the president.

Mr. Ruben said he appreciated “that the president again promised not to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class and the poor," adding that "our members are committed to defending Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security from any benefit cuts as part of a budget deal.”

The Obama White House has not been so adamant about leaving the big entitlement programs alone. In the summer of 2011, Obama and the Republican House speaker, John Boehner, reached a tentative deal to gradually increase the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67. In a separate negotiation between Vice President Joe Biden and House majority leader Eric Cantor, higher premiums for wealthier seniors were on the table.

Now the calculus may be different. Both Obama and the Republican majority in the House have been returned to office. But the tone has changed. Both sides know the public wants a bipartisan solution, and the leaders are talking compromise even as they draw lines in the sand. The question for Obama is how much he can give on entitlements without inflaming his left flank.

On Thursday, seniors groups and liberal lawmakers are planning a rally on Capitol Hill to protest any changes to entitlement programs, according to the Washington Post.

“We will make it very clear we will not be supportive of cuts to Medicare and Social Security,” Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told the Post. “It would be a huge shock and disappointment if the president forgot the reality that he just won a major victory.”

Obama will get a different perspective Wednesday when he meets with CEOs in the White House, including executives from Walmart, Aetna, Xerox, and American Express. White House officials have been lobbying business leaders for several months to support the president on his plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans as part of his effort to avoid going over the fiscal cliff. Economists say the automatic spending cuts and across-the-board tax hikes that would go into effect in the new year if the president and Congress don't act would send the nation back into recession.

In the White House briefing Tuesday, spokesman Jay Carney said that when the president meets with congressional leaders on Friday, he will open with his 2013 budget plan, which would reduce deficits by $4 trillion over 10 years. The proposal would raise taxes on the wealthy by $1.6 trillion, cut health-care spending by $340 billion, and continue $1.1 trillion in spending cuts already in place. The plan also counts $1 trillion in savings from the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“As a whole,” Mr. Carney said, “the plan demonstrates that we can take a balanced approach that if we ask the wealthiest Americans to pay a little bit more, we can continue to invest in areas of the economy that need investment and we don't have to ask seniors, or parents of disabled children, or the least fortunate among us to bear the burden of getting our fiscal house in order.”

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