Schumer spells out Democratic dissent

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama has been punched by Republicans so many times over the course of his failed presidency that it is no longer big news.

But now his performance in office is being attacked by major Democrats, including Sen. Charles Schumer, the party’s No. 3 leader in the Senate — a significant, far-reaching political development that isn’t getting the big headline treatment it deserves.

Since the November elections, the national news media seems to be focused more on the agenda debates among the Republicans than the family feud between the White House and the Democrats over who is responsible for their party’s sweeping losses in Congress. It turns out, there is more infighting among Democrats and the White House, over a host of issues, than in the GOP’s ranks. And Schumer lifted the lid on the behind-the-scenes, post-election bickering and discord that now divides his party.

Late last month, speaking at a major venue in the nation’s capital, the New York senator said the Democrats made a big mistake by enacting Obama’s sweeping health care law in 2010 at a time when the economy was mired in a recession and the highest priority was unemployment.

“Unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them” in electing Obama and putting Democrats firmly in charge of Congress in 2008, Schumer told a packed National Press Club.

“We took their mandate and put all our focus on the wrong problem — health care reform,” he said.

“The plight of uninsured Americans and the hardships created by unfair insurance company practices certainly needed to be addressed. But it wasn’t the change we were hired to make” in the 2008 election, he added.

His criticism was aimed as much at the leadership of his own party as it was at Obama, revealing what many insiders knew at the time: that there were bitter debates going on among Democratic leaders and inside the West Wing about Obama’s emphasis on the wrong issue at the wrong time.

Disagreement in the first two years about putting health reform at the front of the line, instead of economic growth and jobs, ran throughout Obama’s top advisers. Then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel argued vociferously in back-room battles to deal first and foremost with getting the economy back on track. But in the end, Obama was more focused on his legacy as the father of national health care than on putting jobless, middle-class Americans back to work. Schumer, one of the Democrats’ most liberal leaders in the Senate, was one of Emanuel’s strongest allies in that fight, but he was overruled by his party and got in line with the White House’s orders.

Schumer’s blockbuster speech offered a stinging litany of other complaints about how the Obama administration bungled major foreign and domestic policy issues leading up to last month’s elections.

As the 2014 campaigns began, “the parties were in stalemate. But when government failed to deliver on a string of noneconomic issues — the rollout of the Obamacare exchanges, the mishandling of the surge in border crossers, ineptitude at the VA and the government’s initial handling of the Ebola threat — people lost faith in the government’s ability to work and then blamed the incumbent governing party, the Democrats,” Schumer said.

His blistering speech reflected deeper squabbles among Democrats, many of whom openly blame Obama for their party’s losses.

In a candid interview with The Washington Post, David Krone, the chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, flatly blamed Obama’s unpopularity for his party’s losses in the Senate.

Meantime, as the Democrats prepare to turn over control of the Senate to the Republicans, it appears that Obama is about to wound his party once more before the month is out.

The White House announced that he intends to veto a bipartisan $440 billion tax cut deal. The deal would make permanent a number of tax breaks, for millions of businesses and individuals, that are due to expire. These are, for the most part, popular, pro-growth, pro-jobs tax credits that have been extended year after year in short-term periods. Among them: small-business investment tax credits, tax breaks for college costs and charitable giving, and deductions for state and local taxes.

Obama’s veto would be the equivalent of a stick in the eye of Reid, who worked out the compromise. Letting these tax breaks expire now, at a time when the economy remains uneven at best, will only undermine the recovery that shows signs of slowing in the fourth quarter.

Reid faced a lot of anger in his closed-door caucus last month, with at least half a dozen Democrats voting against him, but he managed to hold on to his leadership post — only this time it will be in the minority.

“I voted for a change, and that change was not voting for this leadership,” said West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, who saw Republicans capture Senate and House seats in the once-Democratic bastion.

Other Democrats stuck with Reid, but didn’t shrink from publicly placing the full blame for their party’s humiliating losses on Obama. “This was, whether we like it or not, a referendum on the president in a lot of these states,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut.

Schumer, who’s been the Democrats’ message-maker in the Senate, no doubt thinks he should be its leader, and maybe one day he will be. But his scorched-earth speech exposed the deep, open wounds that now fester within his party’s debilitated, divided ranks.

For the next two years, Obama not only has to contend with a Republican-run Congress, but with what remains of his embittered party, which sees him as the cause of all its troubles.