President Obama Brushes Back His Activist Left

Obama looks to find common ground with Republicans on the Keystone XL pipeline and on Social Security.

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President Barack Obama descends the steps of Air Force One upon his arrival in San Francisco, April 3, 2013.

When President Obama released his first budget to the nation in February of 2009, he spent his afternoon meeting with the liberals from the Congressional Black Caucus at the White House. On Wednesday, when he releases his fifth budget, he will privately dine instead with a dozen Republican Senators.

This change is not just a matter of the White House social calendar. While Obama’s first budget was hailed by progressives as a breath of fresh air, his latest is earning scorn from those same quarters for its plan to cut Social Security—a heresy among many of the President’s liberal base, who have long argued that Social Security is not a contributor to the debt.

“You would expect that the President and the way he campaigned would be defending Social Security, not offering it for sacrifice,” said Roger Hickey, the co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, one of many liberal groups that have already promised to fight the White House. “There is going to be huge resistance.”

(MORE: Why the Fiscal Cliff Deal Should Have Included Social Security)

But Social Security is not the only reason members of the President’s base are riled up at the moment. Last week, on a fundraising swing in San Francisco with well-heeled environmentalists, Obama dodged making any specific public comment about the environmental cause du jour, efforts to stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. But in his public remarks, the President did seem to validate the arguments of the pipelines’ supporters, who have cast the project as an economic boom.

“What we’re going to have to do is to marry a genuine, passionate concern about middle-class families and everybody who is trying to get into the middle class to show them that we’re working just as hard for them as we are for our environmental agenda,” he said, talking generally about the issue of global warming. “The politics of this are tough,” he added.

Opponents of the pipeline saw clear cause for concern. “Of course it’s alarming,” says Damon Moglen, the climate and energy program director of Friends of the Earth. “He told us that climate change was an absolute priority, and to say that it’s no longer a priority because people have other concerns is actually just an abdication.”

(MORE: White House: Keystone XL Pipeline Not A Climate Change Cure)

Obama has not yet taken a position on approving the Keystone XL pipeline, which environmentalists say would increase the risk of ground water contamination and speed the extraction of oil that will eventually contribute to global warming. But like his stance on Social Security, his delicate handling of the pipeline issue is designed to appeal to Republicans and moderates in Congress. In addition to overwhelming Republican backing for Keystone XL, 17 Democratic senators have signaled their support for building the pipeline.

“Look, my intention here is to try to get as much done with the Republican Party over the next two years as I can, because we can’t have perpetual campaigns,” Obama told the same fundraiser in San Francisco last week. “I am looking to find areas of common ground with Republicans every single day.”

The White House has explained Obama’s embrace of lower cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security as part of a similar effort to woo Republican support for a budget deal. “This is not the President’s idealized budget,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Friday. “It is not what he would do if he were king or if only people who supported his proposals were in Congress.”

(MORE: Why Many Americans Feel Like They’re Getting Poorer)

But such admissions will likely do little to muffle the liberal backlash Obama is likely to face in the coming months. Already, he finds Keystone XL protesters lining the streets on nearly every trip he takes away from the White House. “That I promise you is going to get stronger and bigger,” said Moglen.

Groups are also organizing around the President’s proposal to reduce the cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security. has launched a “photo petition” on Tumblr, featuring Obama supporters who oppose his proposed cuts.  The AARP, the powerful group for seniors, has also launched a campaign against Obama’s Social Security plans, pointing out that Obama specifically pledged to the group in 2008 that he would not reduce Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustments.

But as expected, there are signs that the President’s moderation are bearing fruit. On Sunday, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican certain to be a part of any big deal on deficits, said he was encouraged by the President’s latest budget proposals. “The president is showing a bit of leg here,” Graham said.

MORE: Despite Talk of Cuts, Members of Congress Push More Spending