By PETER BAKER
President Obama’s fiscal deal with Republicans has touched off a fresh wave of grievance among disappointed liberals who complained that he caved in on taxes and sent a signal that he would ultimately surrender on other priorities as he prepared to open his second term.
While most Democratic senators went along with the compromise in an early-morning vote on Tuesday, activists, labor leaders and liberal economists issued a harsh barrage against the deal. The president, they said, squandered his election victory by allowing too many wealthy Americans to keep income and estate tax cuts that otherwise would have expired.
The criticism frustrated the White House, which argued that the president held true to his top priorities by forcing Republicans to accept higher income tax rates on higher income levels after they had long refused to do so. Aides noted that Mr. Obama also won important concessions in extending unemployment benefits and targeted tax credits, while beating back Republican demands to scale back the growth of entitlement benefits.
“While neither Democrats nor Republicans got everything they wanted, this agreement is the right thing to do for our country,” Mr. Obama said in a statement issued after the Senate vote early Tuesday. On Monday, he tried to reassure Democrats with a public appearance emphasizing that he still planned to seek more tax revenue in later fiscal talks.
Either way, the sharp debate signaled that the uneasy truce between Mr. Obama and his base that held through the campaign season had expired now that there was no longer a threat of a Mitt Romney victory. It also offered a harbinger of the dynamics for the president’s next four years in office as he prepares to take the oath for a second time later this month.
The criticism mirrors complaints in the past when Mr. Obama included tax cuts in his stimulus package, gave up on a government-run option in health care negotiations and temporarily extended Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy two years ago. Liberals said Mr. Obama should have leveraged his re-election and the new year’s expiration of all of the Bush tax cuts to force Republicans to accept his terms.
“The president remains clueless about how to use leverage in a negotiation,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal advocacy organization. “Republicans publicly admitted they lost the tax debate and would be forced to cave, yet the president just kept giving stuff away.”
Richard L. Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said in a Twitter message on Monday that the agreement was “not a good fiscal cliff deal if it gives more tax cuts to 2 percent and sets the stage for more hostage taking.” Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, said on the floor on Monday that “no deal is better than a bad deal, and this looks like a very bad deal.”
Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning Princeton economist and columnist for The New York Times, wrote a series of blog posts with titles like “The World’s Worst Poker Player” and “Conceder in Chief?” Like others, he said the deal was bad not just because of its own provisions but because, in his view, it undermined Mr. Obama’s insistence that he would not negotiate over a coming debt limit vote.
“Anyone looking at these negotiations, especially given Obama’s previous behavior, can’t help but reach one main conclusion: whenever the president says that there’s an issue on which he absolutely, positively won’t give ground, you can count on him, you know, giving way – and soon, too,” Mr. Krugman wrote.
Still, for all the outcry on the left, only three Democratic senators voted against the deal, including Mr. Harkin. Among the senators who voted for it were Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the only self-proclaimed socialist in the Senate. While many Democrats were unhappy with the deal, they concluded that voting against it could cause greater economic disruption.
Some Democrats grew more comfortable with the package once they learned more about it. Mr. Obama succeeded in forcing Republicans to raise the top income tax rate to 39.6 percent from 35 percent despite their adamant opposition, and while he agreed to apply that to household income above $450,000 instead of $250,000, it captured 85 percent of the revenue he had sought.
Moreover, the bill extends unemployment benefits for two million Americans; extends tax credits for child care, college and renewable energy production; raises capital gains taxes; and limits deductions for the wealthy. And Mr. Obama insisted that a two-month postponement of automatic spending cuts be financed by $1 in tax revenue for every $1 in spending reductions, with the cuts divided evenly between defense and domestic programs.
“When the dust settles, there will be a lot of important elements in this for progressives,” said Robert Gibbs, a longtime adviser to Mr. Obama. Moreover, he said, the deal can be evaluated only in combination with the result of the next fiscal talks, to be concluded by the end of February. “We won’t know the final score on that until you look at both of those negotiations together,” he said.
Some defended the White House, saying it was unreasonable to expect that the president would not have to compromise, given that Republicans control the House and have enough votes in the Senate to filibuster a bill. The president’s aides and defenders scoffed at complaints from people who have never had to negotiate a deal with another party.
Representative Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, said Mr. Obama secured important victories, including extended unemployment benefits. “The president was strong there,” he told CNN. “And I think he’ll continue to be strong. I think, you know, I notice a different president since he won this election.”
Jared Bernstein, a former economics adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said Mr. Obama did what he thought he had to do, but he expressed concern that the president may have squandered leverage unless he holds firm in the coming debate over the debt ceiling.
“While some appear to think his team folded in the cliff debate, I don’t see it that way,” he said. “They saw a plausible path forward, and they took it. My point is it’s only plausible if they really don’t get derailed on the debt ceiling debate.”