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Labor 'optimistic' about protecting entitlements, despite Plouffe comments

Key labor unions backing President Obama are still "optimistic" that he'll preserve entitlements during the fiscal cliff negotiations, representatives said on T
Obama David Plouffe
Obama David Plouffe

Key labor unions backing President Obama are still "optimistic" that he'll preserve entitlements during the fiscal cliff negotiations, representatives said on Tuesday.

Top members of the labor movement were evidently unfazed by remarks from a top Obama adviser who seemed to advocate social safety net cuts.

"The president is aware he did not get elected to cut benefits or balance the budget on the backs of the beneficiaries of Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security," AFL-CIO spokesperson Jeff Hauser told msnbc.

"The NEA feels very strongly that the Obama administration is presenting a strong front and negotiating hard in favor of middle-class Americans and working families," said Mary Kusler, the National Education Association's director of government relations.

As reported on Monday's The Ed Show, Obama adviser David Plouffe recently argued that "Democrats are going to have to do some tough things on spending and entitlements" in order to cut a deal which would avert the fiscal cliff. The president had previously met with top labor leaders to discuss the fiscal cliff, and several of those present later expressed their confidence that Obama would protect their interests.

On November 13's Ed Show, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry declared:

[Obama] was very, very clear that what he said right after the election is that he believes he has a mandate from the majority of this nation that wants to make sure that we can reinvigorate this economic recovery that he started in his first term. And we are completely proud to have his back and to make sure that every American knows what's at stake in this debate.

But others on the left have been more skeptical ever since fiscal cliff negotiations began. Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein told msnbc that organized labor would probably have to "eat some stuff,you know, like limits on Social Security, or some tinkering around entitlements programs." And political theorist Corey Robin accused Obama of "austerity politics," saying, "I think he is part of a class of people within the Democratic Party who really do believe that the system is broke, that we don’t have enough money, and old people are going to have to take it on the chin."

Nonetheless, said Hauser, "We're still optimistic about President Obama keeping his commitment to protect the social safety net." He's evidently not the only one: the Washington Post's Greg Sargent reported that White House officials and representatives of major labor unions met privately on Tuesday morning.

"Things can always change at a moment’s notice," wrote Sargent. "But attendees at this meeting came away convinced—for now—that the White House firmly believes it has the leverage in the fiscal cliff talks, and has no intention of budging on the demand for higher tax rates from the rich or on other core priorities."

The AFL-CIO and other major unions are investing in a major push to ensure those priorities are realized. For example, local AFL-CIO leaders from 33 states are staging a "fly-in lobby day" where they all converge on DC to pressure legislators. On Wednesday, NEA members from 15 states will do the same. And AFSCME, the NEA, and SEIU have launched an advertising campaign in support of the labor movement's position.

If the Democratic Party supports a deal labor doesn't like, it could have serious consequences, Lichtenstein told msnbc on Tuesday. "Insofar as the Obama people are saying we're going to keep the Obama electoral machinery in tact so we can agitate for things ... [union members] are the people who are really the heart and core of that mobilization," he said. "You're not going to mobilize people on behalf of a grand bargain."

Though he declined to predict what the president would do, Lichtenstein sounded more optimistic than before that Obama would hold to a progressive position throughout the standoff. "The cost of not doing it is demobilizing his own supporters, which means 2014's going to be a disaster," he said.

Asked what the AFL-CIO was prepared to do if Obama and congressional Democrats put entitlement cuts on the table, Hauser was evasive. "We're committed to issues and people, not to political parties or politicians, and the labor movement is politically independent," he said. "So we'll fight for the interests of working people."

Similarly, Kusler said, "I think it's hard to play out where we would be three weeks from now. ... We are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that working families, and children, and seniors remain front and center every single day, moving forward."

Asked specifically about the possibility of running primary campaigns against Democrats who support entitlement cuts, Hauser said, "The AFL-CIO thinks primaries are an important part of the political process, and it is certainly willing to consider that when politicians vote the wrong way on certain issues."