Labor unions and liberal interest groups are going all-out for President Barack Obama's reelection -- but they're just as ready to turn that firepower back on him if he betrays them with a grand bargain.
These groups fear a victorious Obama would ink a deal with Republicans during the fiscal cliff negotiations that slashes entitlement benefits. And that could hurt the very coalition of voters -- minorities, women and low- and middle-income families -- that would claim credit for his second term. Even as they turn out the vote in public to keep Obama in office, in private they're plotting a strategy aimed at pressuring him to protect those who reelected him.
The dual-track campaign, led by the AFL-CIO, MoveOn and a network of progressive advocacy organizations, highlights the political vice grip that awaits Obama if he wins Tuesday.
He wants a large-scale deficit deal. But it would inevitably mean making concessions to Republicans that infuriate the Democratic base that spent the past two years and tens of millions of dollars trying to return him to the White House. Progressives worry about which Obama will show up after Election Day: the pragmatist who offered benefit cuts to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in the 2011 debt ceiling talks or the partisan chastened by a failed deal to slice into prized Democratic programs.
"The base is not going to be happy with ham and egg justice" that requires disproportionate sacrifice from all but the wealthy, said Van Jones, Obama's former green jobs czar and founder of Rebuild the Dream, a progressive advocacy group. "It is a fiscal showdown. We're not going to blink. There is no reason in the world why the pillars of middle-class security, the earned benefits that our parents fought for, should be on the chopping block."
The course Obama chooses would set the tone for his second term -- and it's not just Democrats he would need to massage. Republicans are likely to retain control of the House, and with it the power to derail or approve large items on the president's agenda, such as immigration reform. They will demand major fixes to entitlement programs and a renewal of the Bush-era tax rates for the wealthiest Americans.
Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill are gaming out scenarios, including the possibility of the president releasing his own plan and traveling the country to sell it. But the exact strategy depends on the outcome of Tuesday's presidential, House and Senate elections, how congressional Republican leaders interpret the results and whether the GOP relents on taxes, officials said.
Obama, if he wins, will assert that voters had a choice -- and his vision on taxes, entitlements and the deficit prevailed.
"If I've won, then I believe that's a mandate for doing it in a balanced way," Obama said this week in an interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe.""We've already made a trillion dollars worth of cuts. We can do some more cuts. We can look at how we deal with the health care costs in particular under Medicare and Medicaid in a serious way. But we are also going to need some revenue."
But the big unknown is where Obama would draw the line once he plunges into the give-and-take of congressional deal making.
Progressive activists say they're reasonably confident that the president won't compromise on ending the upper-income tax cuts. It's the entitlements that worry them. They want him to stick more closely to the deficit-reduction plan he released in September 2011 that didn't go as aggressively after savings from beneficiaries.
But Obama signaled last week that he could revive the offer he made to Boehner, which was a mix of new revenues, reduced federal spending and entitlement benefit cuts such as raising the Medicare eligibility age and lowering the cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients.
"It will probably be messy. It won't be pleasant," Obama told The Des Moines Register editorial board. "But I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain that essentially I've been offering to the Republicans for a very long time, which is $2.50 worth of cuts for every dollar in [taxes], and work to reduce the costs of our health care programs."
Administration officials say the range of options that Obama has considered in the past are well known, so it shouldn't be a surprise if they are resurrected.
But progressive leaders don't want Obama to go back there. Privately, they use words like "debacle" and "betrayal" to describe the backlash that would ensue. They are far more measured in their public statements ahead of the election.
The unions and advocacy groups have invested time and money in the battleground states pushing the message that Obama is better than Republican Mitt Romney on creating jobs, protecting the middle class and preserving Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
And if Obama wins, they say they plan to remind him who is responsible for delivering him a second term -- and it won't be a coalition of Republicans, deficit hawks or even independents, but rather a Democratic base that expects him to stand firm on key priorities.
They won't match the $30 million behind the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a group of CEOs that's urging Congress to strike a grand bargain. But the coalition of unions and liberal advocacy groups, which is still finalizing its plans, vows to activate its network of grass-roots supporters.
"MoveOn's 7 million members have made clear that ending the Bush tax cuts for folks earning over $250,000 and preventing any benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are top priorities -- that's a key reason why MoveOn members are working so hard to reelect President Obama and elect progressive champions to Congress," said Ilya Sheyman, campaign director for MoveOn.org Political Action. "After Election Day, our members will expect Congress and the president to focus on passing a real jobs program, instead of making job-killing cuts, even if it requires working into January or beyond."
The AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees will keep their organizers in the field well after Tuesday to pressure lawmakers as their attention turns from electoral politics to deficit deal making.
The network will hold what they're calling a national day of action Nov. 8 and follow up later in the month with lobbying events. They'll also release results of an election night survey by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg on why voters went to the polls.
"It is safe to say many groups are very concerned that a grand bargain will be foisted on the Congress that goes against what Democratic candidates promised on the campaign trail," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future. "And it is clear the president is considering making the grand bargain that he offered to Boehner previously."
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