Liberal groups aim to emulate tea party

Activists, angry at Obama, seek to take cues from rivals to re-energize base

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Liberal groups are trying to build a grass-roots movement that they hope will help revive the economy and protect Medicare and Social Security, but whether they will be successful — and use it to help re-elect President Obama — is unclear.

Organizers of this week’s “Take Back the American Dream” conference in Washington have studied the origins of the tea party as they try to build a countermovement to support liberal causes. The effort is a response to Republicans’ takeover of the House in 2010 and disenchantment over Mr. Obama’s attempts at compromise.

After Mr. Obama’s election, many Democrats said they falsely assumed that winning the White House would help them pass an agenda that would assist middle-class families. Instead, they were dismayed when Mr. Obama ditched a proposed “public option” for a government insurance plan from the health care overhaul and cringed when he cut a deal with Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts.

During the summer, the left argued that Mr. Obama gave up too much in spending cuts during the debt-ceiling fight and couldn’t force Republicans to accept higher taxes on the wealthy in return.

“People are totally ready to get behind [Mr. Obama], but I think what they’re not ready to give anybody is the benefit of the doubt that if we win an election and we all go home, things are going to change,” said Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union. “That was probably the theory of the Obama election and taking over the House by the Democrats and the Senate as well. I think it was a failed strategy.”

So liberal organizations have tried to build a movement, holding hundreds of house meetings across the country and staging protests at town-hall meetings held by Republican lawmakers — a tactic that tea party activists used to build opposition to Mr. Obama’s health care plan.

Conference speakers said Mr. Obama’s jobs bill could act as a turning point, a sign that the president is taking a more aggressive push to revive the economy and standing firm against deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security. The president has barnstormed the country, rallying support for the $447 billion plan for tax cuts and public-works spending to stimulate the economy.

While the plan is unlikely to pass Congress in its entirety, the White House thinks Mr. Obama’s populist approach will build support among the public. And liberals think they’ve already moved the president.

“Why is the White House talking different? The White House is talking different because we are walking different,” said Van Jones, a former Obama policy adviser who helped organize the conference.

Liberals took close watch of Mr. Obama’s discussion of deficit-reduction measures and were pleased that he did not seek a gradual increase in the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67. Last summer, Mr. Obama had agreed to the age increase in negotiations with House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio before the talks fell apart. Many Democrats objected to the age increases, arguing it would undercut their criticisms of a Republican plan that would overhaul Medicare.

On Social Security, Democrats have railed against plans by Republican presidential hopefuls to partially privatize the retirement system, letting younger workers divert part of their payroll taxes into a personal account to be invested outside of Social Security.

Mr. Obama does not face a primary challenge, and Republicans have little chance of picking up support from hard-core Democrats next year. But Mr. Obama needs liberals to knock on doors, staff phone banks and register voters — must-do jobs for any candidate’s base. Dissatisfied liberals could also stay home on Election Day or refuse to donate money to Mr. Obama’s campaign.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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