How liberal anger at Obama budget helps the president, Democrats

The president's budget, with its cost-saving measures in Social Security and Medicare, has infuriated the left. That positions Obama more to the center and could help him achieve other goals – and save some Democratic seats in 2014.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Washington displays a book titled "Who Stole the American Dream?" as he questions Treasury Secretary Jack Lew about President Obama's proposed 2014 budget at a hearing by the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday. Liberal opposition to the Obama budget may help moderate Democrats hold seats in 2014.

No doubt about it, liberal activists are angry with President Obama over his budget proposal, which includes cost-saving changes to Social Security and Medicare – two of the biggest pillars of the nation’s social safety net.  

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a usually reliable ally of the president, assailed the proposal Wednesday as “wrong and indefensible.” The day before, progressives delivered 2 million petition signatures to the White House denouncing the plan. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, a self-described Democratic Socialist, accompanied the group, megaphone in hand.

“We are not going to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, disabled vets, the sick, the women, or the children,” Senator Sanders said.

Angry press releases are still going out. Funds are being raised.

And all of this is good for the president.

As with all presidential budgets, the chances of Mr. Obama’s budget actually being enacted are slim to none. Yes, Republicans have welcomed his proposal to introduce “chained CPI” – an alternative method of calculating inflation in cost-of-living increases – in Social Security. But they are dead set against the new taxes in his budget. And Obama won’t do one without the other. He says his budget is already a compromise, not a starting point for negotiation.

So as a governing document, it’s dead on arrival. But it’s still useful: By taking a step toward the center on this one element, Obama demonstrates a willingness to go against his political base – and that base has helped him publicize that point by vocally and publicly objecting to his proposal. By extension, his move on chained CPI could be helpful in dealing with other elements of his agenda.

“Obama is cleverly using it as a bargaining chip to give himself wiggle room on other key agenda items like gun control and immigration reform, while still leaving open the minuscule possibility of reaching a budget grand bargain,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

Obama’s maneuver on Social Security could also help centrist Democrats facing reelection next year. In particular, there are five Senate Democrats from red states who could be in trouble, depending, in part, upon whom the Republicans nominate. A moderated image for Obama could help them. They are Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Max Baucus of Montana, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

In addition, the Democrats are defending the seats of three retirees in states that could easily go Republican: South Dakota, West Virginia, and Iowa.

Currently, the Democrats control the Senate 55 to 45; to win a majority, Republicans need a net gain of six seats. That’s certainly doable, and so it’s in Obama’s interests to help his party’s moderates wherever possible. Given that the Democrats’ chances of retaking the House next year are a long shot, holding onto the Senate is probably the best Obama can do.

But in offering a compromise on entitlements in his budget, does Obama risk hurting members of his own party by inviting primary challenges to those who support his position?

In theory, yes. But practically speaking, probably not, analysts say.

While the Republicans have had plenty of intraparty conflict in the last two cycles, the Democrats have had hardly any. The last sitting congressional Democrat to lose a primary to a left-wing challenger was in 2006, when then-Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut lost to Ned Lamont. Senator Lieberman became an independent, and beat Mr. Lamont in the general.

“The White House is not particularly concerned about the latest round of threats – even as groups like Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and insist they are not bluffing,” write Glenn Thrush and Byron Tau in Politico.

These groups don’t have a lot of money to put into primary challenges, the article notes, especially when compared with GOP outside groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads

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