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Inside Politics: Obama and Boehner in midterm chess match

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
updated 11:07 AM EST, Fri February 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Both Obama and Boehner dropped high-profile initiatives to keep base happy
  • For Boehner, his commitment to immigration reform was sacrificed
  • Obama dropped his idea to tweak inflation adjustments for Social Security
  • Both moves show a shift to election-year positioning

John King and a panel of top political reporters look at how Washington is shifting from any environment of compromise to election-year positioning on "Inside Politics " on Sunday at 8:30 a.m. ET.

Washington (CNN) -- We now know President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner agree on at least one thing: In 2014, keeping the political base happy matters more than advancing once-critical policy initiatives.

For the GOP speaker, a personal commitment to big immigration changes, including a path to legal status for millions of undocumented workers, was sacrificed after it became clear there would be a conservative revolt. The argument from the right: turning out conservatives is the key to 2014 midterm success, and big immigration changes would anger the base.

And now the President's counter move: dropping from his new budget an idea he said was essential just a year ago -- a more modest calculation of inflation adjustments for Social Security. Then, it was a critical piece of entitlement reform and deficit reduction. Now, the calculation is simple: liberals hate the idea, and pushing it in 2014 would anger a base the Democrats need in November.

When Boehner retreated on immigration, it was the White House and its allies who said he was being shortsighted and putting politics ahead of the national interest.

Inside Politics: Boehner says 'never mind' on immigration

A Democratic civil war?
Obama: GOP scared of immigration blowback
Boehner: Wage increase will hurt people

Now, the flipside, from Boehner's office: "The President has no interest in doing anything, even modest, to address our looming debt crisis. ... With three years left in office, it seems the President is already throwing in the towel."

A bit of hyperbole in that last part -- and the speaker has his own immigration flip-flop as a lesson in context: the President on Social Security, just like the speaker on immigration, is only throwing in the towel for this year, hoping it puts him in a stronger position politically next year.

A lot can happen between February and November, but the best bet at this early juncture is that Republicans keep their House majority. The battle for control of the Senate is the big 2014 struggle, and the President has made clear protecting the fragile Democratic majority there is his top priority.

Organizations focused on deficit reduction and structural budget reforms applauded Obama when he embraced the Social Security shift last year -- it is estimated to save $233 billion over a decade. Those same centrist organizations were quick to criticize his decision to abandon the Social Security change this year as a clear political shift left.

"The withdrawal by the President on this specific issue, and his general pivot away from focusing on the nation's medium and long-term fiscal challenges, reflects a dangerous trend," the Campaign to Fix the Debt said in a statement after the White House outlined the budget proposal.

CNNMoney: Obama drops controversial Social Security proposal

The so-called "chained CPI" shift for Social Security will likely return as a debating point next year anyway, but Obama could face even more choices anathema to liberals if the GOP manages to take control of the Senate.

What's the big deal about 'chained CPI'?

Mindful of the stakes, it's clear leadership in both parties is moving away from any environment of major policy compromise and toward full scale-election positioning.

To that end, Obama on Tuesday attends a 2014 Organizing for Action summit. The organization is the grassroots offshoot of the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaign. The summit goal: try to defy the midterm historical odds and protect Democratic seats.

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