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Obama backers turn from re-election to "fiscal cliff" fight

Supporters of President Barack Obama cheer during his election night rally in Chicago, November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing
Supporters of President Barack Obama cheer during his election night rally in Chicago, November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After a year of knocking on doors and working the phones to get President Barack Obama re-elected, Meechie Biggers had gotten over her fear of talking politics with strangers.

So when she came to Washington last week, the small-town real estate agent and a few like-minded Tennesseeans paid a visit to one of their Republican senators, Bob Corker, to try to persuade him to back Obama's proposal to raise tax rates for the wealthy.

Biggers didn't think she had much of a chance of changing his mind, and perhaps she didn't. But four days later, Corker became the latest Republican to say his party should consider Obama's proposed tax hike as part of a year-end budget deal.

"It's a testament to knocking on doors and giving people your two cents," Biggers said.

The election ended more than a month ago, but the campaign continues for many of the 2 million-plus foot soldiers who helped secure Obama's second term.

Flush with victory, many volunteers and staffers are now mounting a grassroots effort to ensure that any deal that emerges from year-end "fiscal cliff" discussions includes a tax increase on the wealthiest households.

It's an open question how many will stick with him if he is forced to consider cutting popular programs such as Medicare that enjoy broad support on the left.

But for now, it's a chance to help Obama fulfill one of his central campaign promises - economic justice - and build on the momentum of his re-election. It also enables them to maintain friendships and a sense of purpose that were forged through the campaign.

"You can only go to so many celebrations, parties and lunches. And then you're ready to help the president get done what he needs to get done," said Lenda Sherrell, a retired accountant from Monteagle, Tennessee, who visited Corker along with Biggers.

The effort gives Obama added leverage in Washington at a time when many Republican allies are undergoing a painful re-examination in the wake of last month's election.

Groups aligned with the conservative Tea Party movement, who pressed successfully for deep spending cuts in earlier budget fights, have been less visible in the fiscal-cliff battle, and business groups have pressed Republican lawmakers to abandon their no-tax-hike stance.

The grassroots pressure from the left could weaken Republicans' resolve to hold the line against tax hikes, said Chris Arterton, a professor of political management at George Washington University. "It tends to take the wind out of their sails if their citizens are pushing in a direction that is absolutely contradictory to the politician's views," he said.

Corker's office said he appreciates hearing from his constituents but he has not changed his view that increased tax revenue should come from eliminating deductions rather than raising rates.

The post-election effort stands in stark contrast to Obama's first term, when officials did not keep his massive grassroots organization engaged in battles over spending, health care and climate change. This time around, campaign officials and liberal allies have made a concerted effort to harness the network for inside-the-Beltway policy battles.

ACTIVISTS INVITED TO WHITE HOUSE

One week after the election, Obama thanked 30,000 volunteers in a conference call and asked them to stay involved in the budget fight. Top activists such as Biggers and Sherrell have been invited to the White House for strategy and networking sessions.

Even as he tries to hammer out a deal with House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, Obama has jetted to campaign-style rallies around the country to keep up the pressure. He has encouraged backers to send Twitter messages describing how they would be hurt by the automatic tax increases due to kick in if the fiscal cliff isn't averted. On Monday, his campaign urged supporters in Republican congressional districts to call their lawmakers to support the tax hike.

Many of the volunteers and staffers who powered the campaign's massive get-out-the-vote effort are continuing their work under the banner of The Action, a coalition of labor and liberal groups that launched three days after Obama's November 6 victory.

As Obama's Tennessee state director, Justin Wilkins steered volunteers in the deeply Republican state to phone banks and door-knocking efforts in more competitive states such as North Carolina. Now he is overseeing many of those same volunteers as part of The Action.

"Nobody had to be called. People literally came running," he said.

Like both of Obama's election campaigns, The Action combines cutting-edge digital tools with an emphasis on boots-on-the-ground action. A slick website directs supporters to events in their local area and provides the phone numbers of House lawmakers who have yet to back a legislative maneuver that would force a vote on Obama's proposed tax hike in the Republican-controlled chamber. Backers can download distinctive yellow-and-black signs to wave at local rallies or post online.

Participants have spent the past month mounting demonstrations outside Republican lawmakers' local offices and writing letters to local newspapers - a strategy designed to boost local news coverage and build public support for the tax hike.

Republicans have complained that the campaign-style tactics are complicating efforts to reach a deal. "A month after his re-election and weeks before the fiscal cliff, he'd still rather campaign than cooperate," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday.

Public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans support the idea of raising taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of U.S. households.

Volunteers see the fight as central to Obama's prospects for a successful second term. Obama will have a tough time pursuing priorities like education without additional revenue, they say.

The Action's narrow focus on raising taxes for the wealthy has allowed the coalition to avoid conflicts over other elements of the fiscal cliff fight that might prove more divisive, such as spending cuts or changes to popular entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security. Participants say they're not sure whether the coalition will stay intact once the tax-hike battle is resolved.

"It's relatively easy for the Democrats to coalesce around this, but there won't be the same united front for the next issue," said University of Michigan politics professor Michael Traugott.

Whether the coalition survives, many of those involved say they intend to keep up the effort to advance Obama's agenda in the years to come.

"It was kind of a little bit scary to me to go knock on people's doors and ask them their political stance, but I did it," Biggers said.

"For me to go to somebody else and say, this is my opinion, do you want to hear it? That's not me. But maybe it is now."

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan. Editing by Fred Barbash, Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker.)

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