How liberal 'triumphs' on Syria and Summers have weakened Obama

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.

Molly Riley/Reuters/File
Larry Summers speaks during an interview with Reuters in Washington, June 24, 2010. Summers, a former top Obama economic adviser, withdrew his name Sunday from consideration to succeed Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chairman.

The left is on a roll. Liberals successfully pushed back against President Obama’s plan to launch airstrikes in Syria, and then quashed the expected nomination of Larry Summers as the next chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

That one-two punch from some usually loyal Democratic allies has left Mr. Obama in a weakened political state right as he enters tough negotiations with Republicans: to keep the government funded beyond Sept. 30, and to raise the limit on federal borrowing authority a few weeks later.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner is having an even harder time getting his own base to heel – but whether that’s good news for Obama is debatable.

What is clear, analysts say, is that emboldened liberals in Congress could make it harder for Obama to operate as he has in the past – that is, making major concessions to Republicans to win deals on government funding and to prevent a default on the debt.

The latest cause of liberal concern is over Obama’s reported willingness to agree to a short-term budget deal that retains the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration – a position that even the House’s No. 2 Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, opposes.

“The left has felt that for much of the Obama presidency they have not been very central, and that the president – even though he appealed to them in campaigns – didn’t really do much once he was in power to meet their concerns,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public policy at Princeton University.

Now, by making more noise and demonstrating their clout, progressives have added a new layer of complexity to the president’s political challenge over the budget. Still, “some on the left would say this is in Obama’s interest,” Mr. Zelizer adds, “because it will at least create counter-pressure to his simply conceding to Republican demands.”

Liberal activists are confident that there’s only an upside to their new boldness, and that if an impasse shuts down the government, Americans will blame the Republicans – as polls suggest.  

“We have a Republican Party that can’t agree with itself in the House and won’t rely on Democratic votes to pass anything sensible, so I think they’ll get blamed for it,” says Bob Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future.

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.

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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