President Barack Obama on Tuesday delivered a "strong" and "determined" defense of his intent to allow Bush-era tax cuts for wealthier Americans to expire while preserving cuts for middle-income earners, according to conversations with several people who attended a meeting between the president and labor and progressive leaders.
The meeting at the White House -- along with a second unannounced meeting with representatives from roughly a dozen groups focused on women's issues -- was the start of a lengthy process of negotiating a resolution to the nation's impending budget crisis.
Obama is scheduled to meet with business leaders on Wednesday and congressional leaders from both parties on Friday.
Lasting roughly an hour, the meeting included representatives from four of the nation's largest labor unions as well as the heads of six independent groups involved in organizing grassroots support for progressive causes.
"The president was very strong on saying there's going to be an end to the Bush tax cuts one way or another," said one participant who requested anonymity to discuss the off-the-record meeting.
After disappointing many in the progressive community by failing to keep his promise to let the upper-income tax cuts expire during previous negotiations with Congress, the president seemed to convince many in Tuesday's meeting that this time would be different.
"I think that the president is going to play a real leadership role in this in finding a solution," said National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel. "I don't think President Obama is acting any different. I think he's in a very different place with those who oppose him. They don't have any leverage over him anymore."
One participant in Tuesday's meeting who was also involved in last summer's debt ceiling negotiations agreed, "The leverage is all on our side now. I don't know why anyone watching this would think the president should negotiate at all [on tax cuts]."
Another participant described the president as "locked and loaded in making sure this is a fair deal."
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said that his organization and the others present on Tuesday plan to help the president keep his promise.
"The president led with that notion of protecting the middle class," Trumka told reporters following the meeting, noting that Republicans have it in their power to negotiate a compromise that "protects" the middle class. "Are we going to push them on that? Without a doubt we're going to push them on that."
Obama was slightly less convincing on his commitment to fight against any and all cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that are pillars of the progressive movement.
Many in the meeting expressed confidence in the president's commitment to stand by promises he made to protect entitlement benefits during the campaign, but acknowledged that this process is just beginning.
"The danger is not where the president is today. The danger for us is when the negotiations begin where they have to give," one participant said. "The first shots are just being fired."
As the lone representative at Tuesday's meeting who was solely focused on protecting entitlement programs, Max Richtman from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said that the message he received was that entitlement cuts offered by the White House during previous rounds of negotiations were no longer on the table.
"I got the sense from this meeting that that was then and this is now," Richtman said. "We've had an election. I think the president feels he's in a better position in terms of negotiating, and I got the clear sense that he's committed to protecting the beneficiaries of those programs as much as he could."
During the meeting, Richtman argued that Social Security should be separated from any deficit negotiations because the program is in relatively good fiscal health. Richtman said he presented his argument to the president and that Obama agreed Social Security reform should be its own discussion.
"The president agreed it should be dealt with on a separate track," Richtman said. "Does a separate track mean two weeks later? I don't know. But he accepted the premise that it was not part of the problem."
Others in the meeting felt that the message on cuts to Medicare and Medicaid coming from the president and senior members of his economic team that attended the session wasn't quite so clear.
"They were leaving the door open on what they would call healthcare savings, what we would call cuts to vital health care benefits," one participant said. "I think that stuff could come on back if the Republicans were pushing on it, and that would be concerning to us."
In separate statements on Friday, both Obama and House Speaker John Boehner struck a bipartisan tone. Speaking at the White House, the president said he was "open to compromise," and would seek to "build consensus" at his meeting with congressional leaders, but he also signaled that compromising on his tax cut position wasn't an option. On Capitol Hill, Boehner sounded open to increasing revenue and said he didn't want to "box anybody else in" by laying out too specific a plan before he spoke to the president. But he also spoke out against increased tax rates.
Recently revealed details of an offer made by Obama to Boehner during negotiations last summer included some healthcare entitlement cuts that were unpalatable to progressives. While some in the meeting expressed fear that those cuts will resurface in order to ensure Republican support of the president's tax proposal, others argue that the playing field has fundamentally changed.
"I think at that time what he was exploring was how far are they were willing to go," NEA's Van Roekel said of the so-called 'grand bargain' negotiations between Obama and Boehner. "It's really quite amazing that they would just not do anything without extending the tax cuts for the top two percent. I think the people who were trying to make sure [Obama] wasn't reelected have lost their leverage and now their going to have to deal with the real issues."
A somewhat more skeptical attendee of Tuesday's meeting agrees that circumstances have changed, but admitted there likely "going to be some issues on the health care front where we'll disagree with him."
"It's a very different bargaining environment now," he said. "He can either take advantage of that environment or not. The president sounded like a guy who has a mandate from the American people and he's going to fulfill it."