White House Appeals to Liberals on Debt Deal

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The left isn't happy about President Obama agreeing to deep spending cuts, but the White House is making a hard sell

The White House moved aggressively on Monday to tamp down liberal criticism of the debt deal crafted by President Obama and congressional leaders, insisting that the initial barrage of progressive attacks on the compromise was based on misunderstandings of its details.

Senior aides in Washington and campaign officials in Chicago reached out to activists and to liberal members of Congress, hitting hard at the message that the president stayed true to his beliefs and protected programs for the poor and the needy.

But it was a hard sell on a day when The New York Times editorially called the deal "a nearly complete capitulation to the hostage-taking demands of Republican extremists" and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote in The Huffington Post that "the radical right has now won a huge tactical and strategic victory."

Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, also weighed in, calling the compromise "an attack on middle-class families" that "asks nothing of the rich, will reduce middle-class jobs, and lines up Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid for cuts."

But the White House fought back.

Asked on "Good Morning America" if the president had committed "abject surrender," Senior White House Adviser David Plouffe, shot back, "Absolutely not." He argued the president protected education, medical research, and programs that protect the most vulnerable. On NBC's "Meet the Press," Plouffe added, "programs like Medicaid, college loans, children's health care would be protected."

Senior White House Adviser Valerie Jarrett said she is among the aides making phone calls to Democrats to rally support. Many of the members of Congress she has called were basing their initial opposition on early, incomplete reports of what is in the deal, she said. They were "initially skeptical," Jarrett said on MSNBC, "but when they see the details of the package, they're becoming increasingly comfortable."

A senior administration official who asked not to be named made the same point to reporters at the White House. Much of the initial criticism, he said, was based on "a very inaccurate version of the deal that was reported by a lot of folks." He added, "As we make the case to Democrats there will be a very different view of us." On Sunday night that official said, "Every quote you have from a Democrat today is based on most likely very inaccurate information."

While most of the White House calls were to members of Congress, the Obama reelection campaign was also reaching out to liberals at the grassroots. An official insisted that the effort builds on what the campaign already was doing. "Our whole field organization is set up to talk to the grassroots everyday," he said. "So that's certainly some of the outreach we'll be doing today starting with the video from the president to our e-mail list."

The campaign effort targets individual supporters rather than the activist groups based in Washington. But with potentially close votes still looming in the House and Senate, most of the action remained in the nation's capital.

"I don't think Democrats do think he gave away the store," a senior administration official said, challenging the accusation from many liberals in Congress. He said the White House is now making the case "that this was a balanced package.... It's done in a way that protects the low-income programs, has balance between defense and non-defense." The official said he expects that the more people learn the details, "the more comfortable they'll become with it because it's done in a very careful way." The White House privately acknowledges, however, that it is unlikely to win over those Democrats "who simply don't believe in the necessity of deficit reduction." But, aides argue, those are in a minority in a party where most agree with the president that the deficit must be attacked.

"I think it's important for us as a party to show the American people that we're serious about deficit reduction, but we're going to try and do it based on our principles," the official said.

Press secretary Jay Carney said, "Progressives need to understand - and we think most obviously do - that deficit reduction is essential, done in the right way." He added that getting "our fiscal house in order" is necessary to "do the things we need to do to grow the economy [and]) make the key investments we need to make."

Veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said that "nobody liked" the compromise but asserted that the agreement will appeal to voters who, increasingly, were turned off by the Republicans' behavior. "At the end of the day, the Republicans win some of this battle. But they lose the war.... They clearly won more than we did in terms of the final product. But in the course of this, they revealed one fundamental fact for every to see : They are deeply divided, and division does not play well. And it was revealed that the most extreme elements of the Republican Party rule the roost."

Samuel Popkin of the University of California (San Diego), who has advised past Democratic presidents, said that Obama was hurt by the messy process -- but not as much as Republicans were. "He looks weaker and better at the same time," Popkin said, because he looked more reasonable than the GOP. Popkin said that any damage toward the president among liberals is balanced by what he expects to be gains with independents. "He probably wins big with independents,"Popkin said. And liberals "are not going to support a third party. It's that simple. He will win them back."

Video credit: NBC/National Journal

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George E. Condon Jr.

George E. Condon Jr is a staff writer (White House) with National Journal.

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