President Obama, after enduring global criticism of U.S. financial policy on a 10-day trip to Asia, is facing renewed anger at home from his own base, many of whom have two words of advice when it comes to thorny policy fights such as the Bush-era tax cuts: Toughen up.
Progressive activists, roiled by signs of White House capitulation on extending tax relief for higher-income earners, are calling on Mr. Obama to stiffen his spine and refuse to back down.
Two weeks ago, Democrats suffered an electoral defeat that flipped the House to Republican control. Allowing even a temporary extension of tax cuts for wealthier Americans would amount to a failure to lead and deprive the party of a key political victory, they argue.
"You have to be willing to pick a fight to win a fight," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has collected more than 100,000 signatures on an online petition urging Mr. Obama not to cave on tax cuts. "The White House's goal right now should be to pick the smartest fights possible where the American people are on their side and end [presumptive House Speaker] John Boehner's honeymoon as quickly as possible."
Liberal activist filmmaker Michael Moore called on the president to "take off the pink tutu."
"It's time to put on the boxing gloves and fight for the people and go fighting for the people," Mr. Moore said Friday on HBO's "Real Time."
The tax-cut debate, which will be resolved by a "lame duck" Congress, is emblematic of the choice facing a White House that had considerable trouble shepherding its priorities through a Democrat-controlled Capitol Hill. Even with a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, Mr. Obama had to make key concessions on the stimulus package, drop the so-called "public option" from his health care overhaul and accept defeat on a "cap-and-trade" approach to climate change.
Now, with the president having diminished troops in both chambers and a minority of them in the House, Republicans and some conservative Democrats are calling for Mr. Obama to make a course correction and move toward the center. Tax cuts would be the perfect opportunity to do just that, they argue.
"Our economy remains weak and raising taxes on job creators and small business at any time, but especially right now, is a terrible idea that could freeze investment and prolong our high unemployment rates," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican. "I hope the White House commits to working in good faith and in a collaborative manner to stop all Americans from seeing their taxes go up."
At the other end of the spectrum, progressives put off by what they view as a litany of capitulations during Mr. Obama's first two years are warning the president that he ignores his left flank at his own peril.
"If you don't fight on this issue, Democrats may lose even more seats in 2012 - and possibly even the White House," the PCCC petition to Mr. Obama declares. A MoveOn.org fundraising e-mail sent Friday asks members for $5 each to help fund rallies and town-hall gatherings to convince Mr. Obama that he must stand firm on tax cuts in order to "turn the country around - and win politically."
The Bush tax cuts are set to expire at the end of the year. At issue is whether to extend all the tax cuts, which would include benefits for individuals earning more than $200,000 a year and couples making more than $250,000. Mr. Obama has steadfastly opposed extending the breaks for wealthier Americans.
But top Obama adviser David Axelrod last week signaled a willingness to compromise with Republicans on tax cuts, saying, "We have to deal with the world as we find it." The comment to the Huffington Post set off a firestorm in the liberal blogosphere and prompted Mr. Green's group to start its petition campaign.
Mr. Axelrod tried to walk back his remark in other publications. Mr. Obama wouldn't rule out a deal in a news conference with reporters in Seoul, where he was in town for the Group of 20 summit.
Mr. Obama added that it would be "fiscally irresponsible" to permanently extend tax cuts for wealthier Americans, but said "there may be a whole host of ways to compromise." He refused to elaborate.
Mr. Green and other activists are pushing Democrats - who will still control the House until the next Congress is sworn in early next year - to schedule just one vote on extending the tax cuts for the middle class, thereby pressuring Republicans to vote "no" in protest.
But it's unclear whether Democratic leaders have the votes for such a move, given that more than three dozen Democrats in both chambers have come out in favor of extending all of the tax cuts. Many conservative Democrats lost their seats to Republicans in the election wave, which might bode well for the party's liberal wing in policy fights.
As they prepare to turn over control of the House, Democrats could learn a thing or two from Republicans, Mr. Green said.
"Even when they were in the minority in the last two years, they knew how to negotiate. They knew how to exert leverage," he said of the GOP.
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