AP Dec. 1: Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., right, speaks during a meeting of the commission on Capitol Hill.
Wall Street Journal
By Peggy Noonan
The left has been honestly disappointed in Mr. Obama. He did not come through as they think he should have in myriad ways—the public option, closing Guantanamo, war, now the tax plan. But—and this makes it all more complicated and fascinating—the left does not say Mr. Obama has been revealed to be at heart a conservative, or a Republican. Most of them know he is one of them—his worldview is more of less theirs, his assumptions are theirs. Does anyone doubt he would have included a public option in health care if he thought he could have? He judged that he couldn't. He didn't have the numbers in the Senate. It isn't an argument about philosophy or ideology. It's only an argument about what's practical and possible.
Some on the left argue that if only the president had talked more, and more passionately, if he'd worked it harder, he could have brought the country to support leftist programs. But why do they think this? The general public has seen the president out there for two years talking and promoting a generally leftist direction. Voters demonstrated in elections through 2009 and '10 that a generally leftist direction is not what they want.
All of this—the disenchantment of the left, the confusion of the party's professionals—has led to increased talk of a primary challenger to Mr. Obama in 2012.
And here too the president's position would be without parallel.
When Pat Buchanan challenged an incumbent president in his party's presidential primary in 1992, he was going at George H.W. Bush from the right. Mr. Bush's base wasn't the right, it was the party's center. His support came from people who said not "I am a conservative," but "I am a Republican." Mr. Bush wasn't challenged from his base.
When Ted Kennedy challenged a sitting president of his party in 1980, he was going at Jimmy Carter from the left. But Mr. Carter's base wasn't the left, it was more or less in the party's center.
When Ronald Reagan challenged a sitting president of his party in 1976, he was going at Gerald Ford from the right. Like Mr. Bush, Ford's base wasn't the right, it was the party's establishment. Eugene McCarthy in 1968 the same—he challenged Lyndon Johnson from the left, while Johnson's base within the party was the establishment.
Modern presidents are never challenged from their base, always by the people who didn't love them going in. You're not supposed to get a serious primary challenge from the people who loved you. But that's the talk of what may happen with Mr. Obama.
The Democratic Party is stuck. Their problem is not, as some have said, that they don't have anyone of sufficient stature to challenge the president. Russ Feingold and Howard Dean have said they aren't interested, but a challenger can always be found, or can emerge. If anything marks this political age, it's that anyone can emerge.
The Democrats' problem is that most of them know that the person who would emerge, who would challenge Mr. Obama from the left, would never, could never, win the 2012 general election. He'd lose badly and take the party with him. Democratic professionals know the mood of the country. Challenging Mr. Obama from the left would mean definitely losing the presidency, as opposed to probably losing the presidency.
There is only one Democrat who could possibly challenge Mr. Obama for the nomination successfully and win the general election, and that is Hillary Clinton. Who insists she doesn't want to.
What are the Democrats to do? If you are stuck with a president, you try to survive either with him or, individually, in spite of him. Some Democrats will try to bring him back. How? Who knows. But that will be a great Democratic drama of 2011: Saving Obama.
The White House itself still probably thinks the Republicans can save him, by overstepping, by alienating moderates. But so far, on domestic matters, they're looking pretty calm and sober. They didn't crow at the tax compromise, for instance, even though they knew the left is correct: It wasn't a compromise, it was a bow. To reality, but a bow nonetheless.
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More than 50 percent of Americans say they are worse off now than they were two years ago when President Barack Obama took office, and two-thirds believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, a Bloomberg National Poll shows.
The survey, conducted Dec. 4-7, finds that 51 percent of respondents think their situation has deteriorated, compared with 35 percent who say they’re doing better. The balance isn’t sure. Americans have grown more downbeat about the country’s future in just the last couple of months, the poll shows. The pessimism cuts across political parties and age groups, and is common to both sexes.
The negative sentiment may cast a pall over the holiday shopping season, according to the poll. A plurality of those surveyed -- 46 percent -- expects to spend less this year than last; only 12 percent anticipate spending more. Holiday sales rose by just under a half percent last year after falling by almost 4 percent in 2008.
“It’s definitely different this year than it’s been,” says poll respondent Larry Deyo, a 38-year-old father of two in Marlton, New Jersey. “I can’t really do too much with spending.” He says he lost his job at a kitchen and bath design center when the company closed, and he’s now working at a Home Depot Inc. store with a “significant decrease” in pay.
Obama’s numbers in the poll, given the context of an economy that is struggling to recover from the longest recession since the Great Depression and the experience of past presidents, aren’t so bad.
As Reagan approached the end of his second year in office, his numbers were more negative than Obama’s in this survey. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in Oct. 1982, 61 percent of Americans said things were worse and 33 percent said they had improved. Reagan won re-election in a landslide in 1984. In the final months of George W. Bush’s presidency, as the financial crisis intensified, Americans said by a 2-to-1 margin that their financial situation had deteriorated, compared with a year earlier.
Americans in the poll also oppose Republican lawmakers’ calls to extend tax cuts for upper-income Americans beyond the end of 2010. Obama reluctantly agreed to a two-year extension of those cuts as part of a compromise package that also retained breaks for the middle class.
Sixty-six percent say the nation is headed in the wrong direction. That’s up from 62 percent who felt that way in an October poll and is the worst reading since the Bloomberg National Poll began in September 2009.
Unemployment Is Top Issue
Unemployment and jobs are the most important issue facing the country now, the poll finds. Fifty percent of those surveyed identified joblessness as their top concern, twice the number who chose the federal budget deficit and government spending.
Members of Obama’s Democratic Party are about evenly split on the question of whether they are doing better than two years ago. Republicans and political independents are more downbeat. More than 60 percent of Republicans say they’re doing worse under Obama. Just over 50 percent of political independents feel that way, compared with a third who say their situation has improved.
Obama, 49, inherited an economy in deep crisis. While it has started to recover -- showing 3.2 percent growth over the past year -- unemployment has remained high. Joblessness rose to a seven-month high of 9.8 percent in November, significantly above the 7.4 percent rate that prevailed in December 2008, the month before Obama was inaugurated.
Stock Market Gains
The stock market has performed much better. The Standard and Poor’s 500 Index has risen more than 50 percent since Obama was sworn in Jan. 20, 2009.
“After looking at all the politicians and all the policies, they’re not geared toward Americans. They’re geared toward the corporations,” says Ken Cmar, a 45-year-old poll respondent residing in Crystal River, Florida.
He says his business aligning wheels on vehicles has shrunk as trucking companies and municipalities with bus fleets have cut back. “It’s that trickle-down economic thing and I’m at the wrong end,” Cmar says.
By age group, only the young -- those under 35, a core constituency for Obama in his presidential bid -- consider themselves better off than they were two years ago.
‘Naivete of Youth’
The young often show a greater “sense that things are getting better for them than we see for older respondents,” says J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based firm that conducted the nationwide survey. “Maybe that is the sweet naivete of youth or, more likely, they are building their careers and things are, in fact, getting better for them.”
While Democrats and political independents agree that unemployment is the top issue, Republicans are about evenly split between jobs and the budget deficit, which totaled $1.29 trillion in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30.
“The deficit is outrageous,” says poll respondent Lisa Brandel, a 36-year-old free-lance writer in Bellefontaine, Ohio. “But the root of the problem is that we need more jobs. If we get better employment, more people will be paying taxes and the deficit will go down.”
On the tax cuts, the survey conducted before, during and after the negotiations between the White House and congressional Republicans this week, shows that only a third of Americans support keeping the lower rates for the highest earners.
Another third say they want only the tax cuts for the middle class to be extended, while more than a fourth say all the tax cuts should be allowed to expire Dec. 31, as scheduled.
The agreement Obama announced Dec. 6 would temporarily sustain the tax reductions for all income levels. The president said the compromise was needed to break a deadlock with Republicans who vowed to block tax cuts for middle-income Americans if those for individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples earning more than $250,000 weren’t extended, too.
The Bloomberg National survey of 1,000 U.S. adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
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To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva in Washington at email@example.com
The House Democratic Caucus on Thursday rejected the tax deal negotiated between the White House and Senate Republicans.
The non-binding vote of the caucus held during a closed-door meeting puts tremendous pressure on House leaders to win changes to a proposal the White House has presented as a "take it or leave it" package.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a brief statement after the vote indicating that lower-chamber Democrats will fight to alter the bill. "We will continue discussions with the President and our Democratic and Republican colleagues in the days ahead to improve the proposal before it comes to the House floor for a vote," Pelosi said.
“Democratic priorities remain clear: to provide a tax cut for working families, to create jobs and economic growth, to assist millions of our fellow Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and to do this in a fiscally sound way.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president is confident Congress will approve the tax package despite its rejection by House Democrats. “At the end of the day” the bill will pass both houses, Gibbs said at his daily press briefing.
Gibbs challenged Democrats to come up with a better compromise than the one Obama reached with Republicans in an effort to break a “legislative stalemate” that could have disastrous consequences for the economy.
“If everybody took out what they didn't like, we would have nothing,” Gibbs said. “And we know the consequences of doing nothing.”
Democrats have appointed Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the assistant to the Speaker, to represent the caucus in future negotiations on the bill. Van Hollen was a part of the so-called Gang of Six, a short-lived group created last week to crunch a compromise with the White House and congressional leaders from both chambers.
The White House, however, abandoned those talks and focused instead on meetings with Senate Republicans. It is now insisting that the deal worked out with Senate Republicans cannot be changed.
That position appears to have provoked outrage among House Democrats who are livid that the package would extend all of the tax cuts signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003, including those for the highest income earners.
Sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the resolution says simply that Democrats oppose floor action of the tax deal in its current form.
"We have tremendous concerns about what was given away by the White House," DeFazio told reporters in the Capitol basement after the vote.
DeFazio said the voice vote was "virtually unanimous," with only one or two members expressing dissent.
"We have given our leadership license to force the Senate and the White House back to the table to get a better deal for the American people," he said.
Asked if leadership had agreed to do that, DeFazio replied, "Well, they're not going to get a bill if they don't."
DeFazio said he spoke to the Speaker prior to the vote and that she "did not express any opposition to what we proposed." DeFazio said the next step is for leaders to "go back to the bargaining table — and this time, they don't have a side-bargain between Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell," the GOP leader in the Senate.
President Obama on Monday stirred a firestorm when he announced a deal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all income levels. House Democrats passed an alternative bill last Thursday extending those cuts only to individuals earning less than $200,000 and families earning less than $250,000 annually. Both sets of tax cuts are set to expire at the end of the year. The deal also includes a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits.
Democrats are as angry about how the deal was put together as they are about its substance — they see the White House as abandoning bipartisan talks with Republicans and Democrats to work out a deal just with Senate Republicans. Vice President Joe Biden visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday to deliver the message to House Democrats that the White House viewed the deal as a "take-it-or-leave-it" accord.
In the lead-up to the vote on the DeFazio resolution, supporters could be heard from the hallway chanting, "Just say no!"
"There came a point where clearly they decided to cut a deal with the Republicans," Van Hollen said Tuesday.
DeFazio had another take on that episode: "We had a representative in the room bargaining, while the deal was being cut somewhere else."
"[Biden] basically said, 'Take it or leave it,' " DeFazio said. "We left it. It's up to them."
The White House has been aggressively pushing the deal all week, arguing Democrats risk plunging the country into a double-dip recession by rejecting it. At a testy news conference this week, Obama defended his negotiating stance, saying Republicans were not going to budge on their insistence that all of the tax cuts be extended. The president compared the GOP to hostage takers and said he had to act in order to help middle-class taxpayers and the unemployed.
DeFazio had intended to bring up his resolution next Tuesday, but news reports indicating the Senate is leaning toward accepting the deal caused him to expedite the timeline, DeFazio said. Fifty-five Democrats had signed a petition to force a vote on the resolution.
Some Democratic leaders remain reluctant to attack the White House-GOP deal directly. In very cautious comments to reporters after the vote, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) punted on questions about where he stands on the current proposal.
"The president said he would fight for the middle class," he said. "I'm with him on that."
With the lame-duck session quickly coming to a close, Congress is running out of time to finalize a deal on the tax-cut extensions. Asked if the short window threatened the House Democrats' push to return to the bargaining table, DeFazio suggested the lower-chamber remain in Washington this weekend to hash out a deal.
"I don't think there's an imperative the House go anywhere," he said.
The chairman of the caucus, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), downplayed the notion of the move being a purposeful rebuke of the Obama administration, as other Democrats had characterized it.
“We have a great relationship with the White House. I want to underscore that,” he said. “We stand solidly behind the president.”
But he said House Democrats wanted to put “our own imprimatur” on the tax-cut proposal.
Not all Democrats were on board with the resolution. Some said they want a chance to vote on the White House deal.
"A clear majority of the U.S. House of Representatives supports this plan," Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) said in a statement. "We are allowing the liberal wing of the Democratic Caucus to hold these critically needed tax cuts hostage."
Republicans, who will be running the House next year, have few options to force a vote. There is not enough time to launch a discharge petition, which would allow for a roll call if it collected 218 signatures.
Under House rules, there is a waiting period before a measure can be called up via discharge petition, House parliamentary experts explained. That waiting period prevents a discharge petition from being a viable strategic move.
Regardless, many House Republicans believe the Democrats will blink.
A senior GOP lawmaker said House Democrats were just "blowing off steam" in their caucus vote on Thursday.
If Democrats attempt to change the estate tax provisions, Republicans say they may reject such a revised proposal.
Asked if tinkering with the estate tax provisions would be a deal breaker, Incoming Education and Labor Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) responded that "it could be close to it."
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has announced he would vote against the plan that includes an extension of unemployment benefits that are not paid for.
A spokesman for Minority Whip Eric Cantor said the Virginia lawmaker has not taken a whip count of Republicans because legislative language has not yet been introduced.
For the most part, House Republicans are supportive of the compromise, according to Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.).
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said the new GOP majority may have to pass the deal early next year.
"If we're going to cut a deal, and they're going to re-cut a deal, at some point you have to say, 'Maybe we have to deal with this next year,'" Rogers said. The Michigan legislator stressed his preference to pass the package this month.
Sam Youngman and Molly K. Hooper contributed to this story.
This story was posted at 11:45 a.m. and last updated at 5:20 p.m.