Obama Risks Alienating Liberals Over Tax Deal

Obama could alienate his party on issues such as the tax cut deal and pay freeze.

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The next month will go a long way toward defining President Obama's relationship with Capitol Hill and indicating whether there will be progress or stalemate on a wide range of issues facing the country. So far, the signs are not very promising.

Obama's meeting with congressional leaders last week seemed cordial enough, according to participants who talked to the media afterward. But there were no concrete agreements on how to proceed on a variety of hot-button concerns, including how to reduce the burgeoning federal deficit and how to lower unemployment, which is the topic uppermost in Americans' minds. Congress is currently meeting in lame-duck session to clean up unfinished business and attempt to set an agenda for 2011. But there are few signs that the Democrats, who took serious losses in the November midterm elections, and the Republicans, who now control the House, are able to work together any better than they have in the past two years. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

Even though the private meeting at the White House apparently was filled with pleasantries, neither side appeared to give much ground. The Republicans, led by incoming House Speaker John Boehner and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, said they wouldn't back away from their goal of forcing the White House to accept less government, lower taxes, and a tougher foreign policy. "There's a reason why we have Democrats and Republicans," Boehner said. "We believe in different things about the appropriate role of the federal government."

Obama sounded more conciliatory when he told reporters, "The American people did not vote for gridlock. They didn't vote for unyielding partisanship. They're demanding cooperation and they're demanding progress." So far, it is Obama who is giving ground as he tries to show that he is independent of party orthodoxy and will risk alienating his liberal base for the good of the country. He did this when he called for a freeze on the pay of most federal workers for two years and when he made a deal with the GOP to extend the Bush tax cuts. Some Democratic strategists lauded the move, saying it seemed to be a case of what aides to President Bill Clinton used to call "triangulation"—borrowing ideas from the Republicans and the Democrats to find a "third way" to solve problems. This approach proved popular with voters in the 1990s, and Democratic strategists predict that Americans will react the same way now if Obama continues to steer in a moderate direction. Some of his natural allies, however, are crying foul. "This is not sound economic policy. It's sledgehammer economics," says Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers.

[Read 10 Things You Didn't Know About the Bush Tax Cuts.]

Obama also has some tough foreign-policy challenges ahead, including his goal of getting the Senate to approve a new nuclear arms-control agreement with Russia. And perhaps the most urgent problem abroad is finding a way to cool tensions with North Korea, which is in the midst of still another crisis with South Korea and the United States. The president would be greatly helped if he could reach some consensus with Congress on how to proceed, but so far that hasn't happened.

And as 2010 winds down, no one seems to have the advantage in public opinion. At best, the country is thoroughly polarized on one issue after another. For example, 55 percent of registered voters disapprove of how Obama is handling the economy, while 42 percent approve and 4 percent are unsure, according to the latest Marist Poll released November 24. And if the 2012 presidential election were held today, 48 percent of registered voters say they would definitely vote against Obama and 36 percent say they would definitely vote for him, while 16 percent are undecided, according to the poll. Fifty percent of independent voters, perhaps the most important voting bloc of all because of their power in swing states, say they won't support Obama. At the same time, 30 percent say they definitely will vote for him and 20 percent are undecided.