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Obama's leftward lurch poisons hope for consensus

As a lame duck president, Obama is desperately trying to secure a legacy and set up strong contrasts for the 2016 presidential campaign between Democratic and Republican values. (AP)

President Obama’s plans to go big and lurch left with new tax and spending proposals is getting praise from the left, but they are almost certain to widen the divide with the Republican Congress.

Just three months after landslide elections that left the GOP with 247 seats in the House and 54 in the Senate, Obama appears even more determined to avoid the centrist move that exit polling in November indicated voters want. Ahead of Tuesday night's State of the Union speech, the White House this weekend released a slew of proposals for new taxes and regulations.

GOP political consultants argue that the move is tone-deaf, ignores the midterm election results, and poisons the well for real tax reform compromises with Republicans, a heavy lift that Congress had put off for decades but one that both sides had hoped to accomplish this year.

“I’ll be looking at the State of the Union address to see if [Obama] understood what happened in the last election or whether he just ignores it,” said David Winston, a veteran GOP pollster. “When a party ignores when the American people have spoken, it’s usually a dangerous moment for that party.”

Winston cited exit polls in the last four elections since 2008 when Obama was voted in office.

When it comes to whether government should do more or less to solve the nation’s problems, Winston’s polls show a sharp swing against government solutions since Obama was first elected.

In 2008, amid a real estate correction that threatened large financial institutions, 51 percent of those surveyed said they believed government should do more to solve the country’s problems. In 2010, that number shrank to 38 percent. Support for more government intervention in markets was 44 percent in 2012 and 41 percent in 2014.

Over the weekend, Republicans on Capitol Hill declared many of the new initiatives Obama previewed in the lead-up to the speech dead on arrival.

From calls for “free” community college to more infrastructure spending and increasing taxes on the wealthy, the rollout has ended any serious talk about a more conciliatory approach in Washington as Obama tacks decidedly leftward heading into his final two years in office.

“The $320 billion tax hike is the last thing our shaky economy needs right now, and it’s one more obstacle to getting to the better solutions — focused on lowering rates, simplifying the tax code, and creating jobs that families and small businesses need,” Cory Fritz, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner said in a statement Monday.

Fritz also questioned whether Obama will offer a plan to reform the entire tax code and asked whether the plan would help both parties come together to achieve “fundamental reform.”

Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, was far more pessimistic about any chance of comprehensive tax reform passing in the next two years after Obama’s weekend announcement.

“President Obama has laid down a marker that forces Republicans to choose whether they are going to cave in or shelve tax reform for the next few years,” Manning said.

Meanwhile, the far-left wing of the Democratic Party, a faction that identifies with potential Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, heaped praise on Obama's plans for heavier government intervention in the economy.

The Progressive Change Institute plans to release a poll Tuesday ahead of the speech showing a correlation between Obama’s slightly improved poll numbers and his doubling down on ideas such as alternative energy subsidies and free community college.

“There is a hunger in America for progressive ideas, from creating clean energy infrastructure jobs to debt-free college at public institutions,” said Adam Green, who heads the group. “To pay for it, there is wide support for progressive tax reform. Especially when people are informed about tax rates on the wealthy … there is huge support for having the rich pay their fair share — from capital gains to income taxes.”

Green’s group will release all of its key polling findings on Tuesday but provided the Washington Examiner with a preview.

In a poll of 1,500 likely 2016 voters nationwide, Karl Agne of GBA Strategies found that 54 percent support raising the tax rate on personal income above one million dollars a year, with 31 percent opposing and 12 percent undecided.

Far more Americans — 63 percent — support closing a tax loopholes that allows millionaire hedge fund managers to pay a tax rate of 14 percent on their profits compared to average working men and women who pay much higher tax rates.

When it comes to job creation, even more Americans support government infrastructure spending. According to the survey, 71 percent of Americans support an AFL-CIO proposal to invest four billion dollars per year in a major new infrastructure job program, while just 18 percent oppose it and 10 percent are undecided. The labor union claims the program would create four million long-term jobs.

The stark contrast in polling data and agendas sets up a classic Washington struggle that will dominate the political landscape for the next two years.

As a lame duck president, Obama is desperately trying to secure a legacy and set up strong contrasts for the 2016 presidential campaign between Democratic and Republican values.

Republican leaders are trying to walk the line of placating their conservative base that wants to oppose Obama at nearly every step, and showing the American public that they can pass legislation that the president will sign.

Conservatives are still railing against their GOP leaders decision to cut a deal with Obama on a massive spending bill last year, a concession that two-dozen House Republicans cite as spurring their revolt against Boehner in Congress’s first day back on the job this year.

The faction was happier with Boehner’s initial legislative attempt last week to de-fund Obama’s immigration executive action. But they are still wary of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s repeated pronouncements that Republicans will not go to the mat this year and shut down the government over fiscal differences with Democrats.

Boehner, they argue, has been to quick to echo McConnell’s statements, weakening their negotiating position with Obama even though they have the strongest Congressional majority in decades.

“The only people in the world who President Obama is completely unafraid of are McConnell and Boehner,” Manning said. “As Obama cuts deals favorable to Iran, Castro and the entire Pacific Rim, he fights against the Republicans in Congress and largely because they have not shown a willingness to use every means at their disposal to make him pay a price.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story improperly sourced the polls David Winston cited. The Washington Examiner regrets the error.