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Obama alienating some Democratic moderates with fiscal stance

President Obama’s decision to go toe-to-toe with Republicans in the fight over taxes and spending won approval from many Democrats — but may have moved him farther from his party’s moderates, many of whom will be fighting for their careers next year.

Several centrist Democrats have responded to Obama’s new tack with lukewarm praise, outright criticism or loaded silence. Some expressed skepticism about the president’s commitment to his approach and of his ability to control the debate as Republican opposition escalates. Others opted for a wait-and-see approach or bemoaned the president’s apparent shift away from the middle of the road.

The reaction puts a spotlight on the distance some lawmakers are placing between themselves and a president whose popularity has plummeted — an awkward space likely to become more prominent as 2012 campaigns heat up.

Staking out fiscally conservative positions, Democrats over the last several elections have managed to steal voters from Republicans in some unlikely places, such as Montana and Virginia. But many moderates lost their seats in 2010, and those who remain are nervous about the campaign and aren’t eager to embrace the president’s call for tax hikes, even increases aimed at the wealthiest Americans.

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“I don’t think very much of it,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said when asked about Obama’s hardened demand that spending cuts be paired with new revenue for deficit reduction. “Any kind of revenue enhancement or tax talk has to come, in my opinion, second to the cutting. We have a spending issue, as well as a revenue issue, but we have to solve them separately.”

Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat facing a strong challenge in a red state, said Obama’s proposal was “not the one I would have written, nor is it the one that will end up passing Congress.”

To be sure, neither lawmaker is representative of the Democratic caucus. More liberal Democrats have spent months urging the president to abandon his conciliatory tone toward the GOP-controlled House. After watching the president haggle with and be rebuffed by Republicans in the debt ceiling fight this summer, they applauded what appears to be a new course.

“He started from a hard-core position, which is a position he believes in and I believe in,” said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). “Maybe he’s going to have to give ground, but at least he didn’t offer ground.”

But the reaction from moderate Democrats may be a gauge of the challenges awaiting Obama in crucial swing states, such as Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania, as he struggles to hold together a broad and disjointed coalition.

Obama has offered two major legislative proposals in recent weeks: a jobs bill for next year that would cut payroll taxes and other levies and increase spending on infrastructure such as roads and bridges; and a longer-term deficit-reduction plan that would raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and trim the cost of Medicare.

Neither plan is likely to pass the GOP-led House intact, Democrats acknowledge.

The long-term deficit-reduction plan, in particular, seems unlikely to achieve any Republican support. As a political matter, Obama’s backers hang their hopes on polling that shows key elements have strong support beyond the Democratic base. A new Gallup poll showed two-thirds of Americans support a higher tax rate for the top income bracket, and 70% support closing loopholes that benefit corporations.

But doubters — both of the politics and the policy — remain.

Centrist Democrats pride themselves on changing the party’s image as home to tax-hungry liberals wanting to redistribute wealth. Many view it as a step back to return to a strategy of focusing on tax hikes. (The godfather of modern centrists, former President Clinton, did Obama no favors Wednesday by saying he didn’t believe “we ought to be raising taxes or cutting spending” right now.)

For others, the resistance to jumping on board stems from wariness about whether the administration will stay in the fight.

“The president got off to a good start. If he would stay on that message, I think we’d have a good chance,” said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana who has been critical of the administration’s focus on closing loopholes for oil and gas companies. On Tuesday, Landrieu said she supported the broad goals of Obama’s plan.

Some top GOP targets in next year’s elections — Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania — declined to comment on the specifics of Obama’s deficit-reduction plan.

Democrats who did come out firmly opened themselves up to attack. Former Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine, now a Democratic Senate candidate in Virginia, supports allowing the George W. Bush-era tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest Americans, prompting his top GOP rival to issue what will probably be a familiar charge. Kaine would like to use the money to pay for tax cuts for the middle class.

“Chairman Kaine’s announcement today is another indicator that he is more interested in championing the president’s failed agenda and policies than advocating and fighting for the families and businesses of Virginia,” said Bill Riggs, spokesman for GOP Senate candidate George Allen.

Still, moderate Democrats are mindful that a strategy that helps the president also helps them by boosting Democratic turnout in the election, even if they are not fully on board.

“If he’s energizing that base, then that’s good for Bob Casey,” said Pennsylvania political analyst Larry Ceisler. “Every vote that comes out Barack Obama is a vote for Bob Casey. I won’t tell you that every vote for Casey is a vote for Obama.”

That leaves some Democrats seeking a balance of distance, without criticism. One solution appears to be cherry-picking parts of the proposal. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) backs the extension of Social Security payroll tax cuts proposed in the president’s jobs plan and the suggestion of increased tax rates for millionaires, but withheld immediate support for the broader increase on the top tax bracket.

“It might have a better chance of Congress passing some of its key provisions if the plan was broken down into smaller parts,” said Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin.

Sen. Tester also found something to like.

“As we cut spending and cut debt, I do agree that our nation cannot afford to keep tax loopholes that benefit millionaires and corporations that ship jobs overseas. Everyone has to pay their fair share,” the Montana Democrat said.

Rallying around Obama’s call for fairness may be as much of a consensus as Democrats can muster — for now.

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com


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