Liberal lawmakers from Congress and a coalition of like-minded groups rallied outside the White House on Tuesday, voicing frustration at the Democratic president they say has let them down by proposing cuts to Medicare and Social Security.
One day before President Barack Obama was set to unveil his budget, organizers stacked nine file boxes in front of the White House that they said contained more than 2 million signatures on petitions telling Obama they won't stand for cuts to entitlement programs cherished by the Democratic base.
Their voices joined those of other liberal Democrats who are increasingly declaring their discontent with Obama's second-term overtures to Republicans as he works to secure bipartisan support for his proposals on gun control, immigration, the budget and the environment — achievements that could form a powerful legacy, but only if he can get them through a divided Congress.
"I am so shocked. This is not what I expected from him," said Phyllis Zolotorow, a medical secretary from Ellicott City, Md., who said she campaigned for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Rep. Mark Pocan, a freshman Democrat from Wisconsin, said the Social Security cuts are an affront to the nation's moral promise. And Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent allied with Democrats, offered a bleak warning to any lawmakers who support the measure.
"If they vote to cut Social Security, they may not be returning to Washington," Sanders told about 100 people who gathered with signs that read "No Chained CPI" and "We earned our Social Security."
A key feature of Obama's budget, the chained Consumer Price Index is a new formula for calculating inflation. It would effectively curb annual increases in a broad swath of government programs, but would have its biggest impact on Social Security
Obama is also proposing $305 billion in cuts to Medicare over a decade as part of $1.8 trillion in deficit-reduction over a decade. The White House has said Obama will only agree to those cuts if Republicans agree to higher taxes.
"While I am extremely disappointed, because I think it is exactly the wrong thing to do, I'm not surprised," Sanders told The Associated Press, noting that Obama included the inflation adjustment in previous offers to the GOP.
Rather than congratulating Obama for including the cuts in his budget, Republicans on Capitol Hill accused Obama of holding deficit-reduction hostage to job-killing taxes, illustrating the difficulty for Obama in finding a middle ground that either party can support.
"Democrats and allies understand that this budget the president will put forward tomorrow is not his ideal budget," said White House press secretary Jay Carney. "It is a document that recognizes that to achieve a bipartisan solution to our budget challenges, we need to make tough choices."
But liberal Democrats, fresh off fighting to get Obama re-elected last year, say they're disheartened that Obama isn't sticking up for what they say are core Democratic principles. Many of the groups, including the AFL-CIO and the National Organization for Women, endorsed Obama last year.
"It's not personal," Jim Dean, the chairman of Democracy for America and the brother of former presidential candidate Howard Dean, said in an interview. "I don't look at this as a wholesale revolt against the president as much as I look at it as making sure the president stays on track and adhered to the values of what he campaigned on."
Liberal vexation with Obama's nonbinding budget proposal adds to a growing list of issues where some of Obama's longtime allies are imploring him not to give in too much in the pursuit of bipartisan compromise.
As Obama arrived at a fundraiser for Democratic candidates last week in deep-blue San Francisco, he was confronted by protesters opposing Keystone XL, a proposed oil pipeline that would transport oil from Canada's tar sands to Texas Gulf Coast refineries. The project is awaiting approval, but a State Department-issued environmental report that found no evidence to block it has raised concerns among environmental activists that his administration is on track to green-light the pipeline.
Among the Obama supporters now publicly urging him to reject Keystone is Bill Burton, who formed the Obama-sanctioned super PAC that helped fuel Obama's re-election victory last year. Now an adviser to the League of Conservation Voters, Burton is coordinating "All Risk, No Reward," a coalition that's airing ads urging Americans to stand against the pipeline.
Liberal activists in recent weeks have also urged Obama to stand firm on his proposals for reducing gun violence, rather than let some measures — like an assault-weapons ban and limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines — fade away in hopes of securing enough support from Republicans and centrist Democrats to get a bill through Congress. And a few Democrats, including Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, have joined with libertarian-minded Republicans to raise concerns about Obama's drone policy.
Their protestations come as Obama is seeking to improve relations with Congressional Republicans, an effort that will continue Wednesday when Obama, hours after releasing his budget, will host a cohort of Senate Republicans for a dinner at the White House.
White House officials say they're not looking to pick a fight with liberal supporters over the budget or any other issue. Administration officials are reaching out to various groups to explain why Obama believes the measures he's proposing are both best for the country and in line with the values he campaigned on.
But the risk of upsetting the left-flank of the Democratic Party may be less worrisome to Obama now that his last election is behind him. In fact, it could give Obama cover to argue that he's offering concessions deeply unpopular with his base in the name of compromise — and Republicans should, too.
"That gives him leverage," said Democratic strategist Maria Cardona. "He's demonstrating to the majority of Americans who got him elected — along with his base — that he's trying to do something that is real and can actually pass Congress."
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