President Obama has proposed two years of free community college for all Americans, pledged to defend Social Security and is looking to hike taxes on wealthy Americans, but liberal leaders are putting unprecedented pressure on the White House to go even further and fully embrace a more populist, progressive agenda.
Coming out of his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Mr. Obama faces a newly empowered progressive movement that is no longer willing to settle for a more modest agenda. The president’s liberal allies appear largely uninterested in compromise with Republicans and instead want Mr. Obama to push his most left-wing platform to date.
The final two years of Mr. Obama’s time in office likely will determine, in the eyes of many on the left, whether his tenure was a success or a missed opportunity for an activist government.
“The American people will support him if he goes even further [to the left]. To be clear, progressives are not waiting,” Adam Green, co-founder of the increasingly powerful Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Tuesday. “Progressive allies, including many members of Congress, will work together to push big, bold, economic populist ideas to the center of the national debate in 2015 and 2016. If President Obama leads, we will get his back.”
The committee’s sister organization, the Progressive Change Institute, on Tuesday released the full results of its Big Ideas Project, which asked voters which policies they want to see at the forefront of political debate over the next two years. Over 1 million votes were cast, and powerful members of Congress such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, have agreed to review and consider the top ideas.
Expanding Social Security came in at No. 1, and “tax equality” came in third. Other popular progressive ideas such as universal health care, breaking up large banks such as Citigroup and others rounded out the top 10. Debt-free college also has significant support among progressives, according to the survey, and is a much more radical idea than the two years of free community college proposed by the president.
Mr. Obama has also openly appealed to another potential liberal constituency — the young — with policy proposals such as the college debt idea and by reaching out to media outlets favored by younger voters. Among those granted post-speech interviews with the president will be YouTube personalities Bethany Mota, GloZell and Hank Green. The live interviews will be shows via YouTube on Thursday, according to a White House press release.
Many of the top ideas in the poll — such as expanding Social Security, breaking up banks and drastically reducing the cost of college — mirror the positions of rising progressive hero Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the first-term Massachusetts Democrat who is being urged to run for president by leading liberal groups such as MoveOn and Democracy for America.
Although the president hasn’t moved far enough to the left to fully align himself with Ms. Warren and other liberal leaders, many in the progressive movement hope such a course change will take place over the next two years.
There have been signs that Mr. Obama, at least to some degree, will pursue some items high on liberals’ wish lists despite dealing with a Congress under total Republican control.
Still, many on the left surely won’t be satisfied with Mr. Obama’s approach.
Last week, for example, the president proposed hiking the nation’s tax rate on capital gains from 23.8 percent to 28 percent, including a 3.8 percent tax on unearned income to fund Obamacare. The proposed rate would apply to individuals with adjusted gross income over $200,000.
He also proposed closing the “trust fund loophole” that allows some wealthier Americans to pass along investment gains without being taxed.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats and is a self-described socialist, merely said the president’s plan “moves us in the right direction.” He hinted that he and others on the left believe more extreme tax increases are needed.
“At a time of obscene levels of income and wealth inequality, President Obama’s plan moves us in the right direction,” Mr. Sanders said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the administration to adopt a tax system that eliminates unfair tax loopholes that only benefit the wealthiest people and largest corporations and to increase the take-home pay of working Americans.”
The president also has taken dramatic steps on environmental and climate change issues, though those, either, haven’t been enough to fully satisfy many on the left. Last week, the White House rolled out harsh restrictions on methane emissions, which critics say will cost the oil and gas sectors billions of dollars over the next decade.
Leading environmental groups applauded the move but, once again, said the president did not go nearly far enough.
“Controlling methane, however, is not an end in itself and it will not make fracked oil and gas climate-friendly. Continued reliance on dirty fossil fuels is a dangerous course for our communities and our climate,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “We must move swiftly to truly clean energy like wind, solar and energy efficiency while establishing policies that keep fossil fuels in the ground.”