For a guy who doesn’t seem to relish using the bully pulpit, and who often appears to prefer compromise to confrontation, President Barack Obama is playing an awful lot of hardball lately.
In the last few weeks, the president has grabbed the center, along with the microphone on the debt ceiling debate, holding press conferences and talking continuously on the teevee, and positioning himself squarely as the adult and the moderate against bratty, spoiled Republican extremists who won’t even close rich people’s loopholes. (He literally told the GOP to eat their peas. Wow.) The “shared sacrifice” argument is resonating with a public that’s starting to ask why they should have to go without but hedge fund managers get a pass (plus a $350 bottle of Merlot with Paul Ryan), and the gap between those who say raise the ceiling, and those who say don’t, has narrowed to five points in the latest Pew poll.
And now, the president is playing the hardest card of all: he’s letting the seniors — who vote like crazy — know who’s screwing them over.
From CBS News:
President Obama on Tuesday said he cannot guarantee that retirees will receive their Social Security checks August 3 if Democrats and Republicans in Washington do not reach an agreement on reducing the deficit in the coming weeks.
“I cannot guarantee that those checks go out on August 3rd if we haven’t resolved this issue. Because there may simply not be the money in the coffers to do it,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley, according to excerpts released by CBS News.
The Obama administration and many economists have warned of economic catastrophe if the United States does not raise the amount it is legally allowed to borrow by August 2.
Watch the preview:
How will the GOP respond to that direct hit at them, via the very group who stomped to the polls in 2010 to replace Democrats over Republican-stoked fears of Medicare “death panels” and phantom cuts to Medicare benefits (which were really cuts to insurance companies’ intake via Medicare Advantage)? They’ll whine and kick and scream, and demand that Obama be made a one term president, blah blah blah.
But they can’t win, and they may not even survive politically if this keeps up much longer.
Matt Bai, your witness:
The question is who you would rather be if this thing does, in fact, escalate into a full-blown crisis. As things stand today, I’d much rather be in the president’s shoes than in those of his adversaries, and not only because he tends to dress better.
I say this because politicians very often get themselves into trouble when they subscribe to what you might call the transference theory of political popularity. This is the theory that suggests that the enemy of the person voters don’t trust is someone they will inherently trust more. Or to put it another way: if you’ve lost faith in that guy over there, and I walk up and kick him in the teeth, then your faith will be somehow transferred to me.
This is the political theory under which George W. Bush’s advisers were operating when they predicted spontaneous outpourings of support from Iraqis once American troops toppled Saddam Hussein. Anyone who’d spent a little time in Iraq should have known that while most Iraqis were going to be glad to be rid of Saddam, that didn’t mean they were ready to embrace his deposer, either.
And this is effectively the same theory that Republicans in Washington have adopted since last November. They mistake disappointment with Obama’s policies for an emphatic validation of their antigovernment rhetoric. They think the voters have to trust someone, and since they’re not so enamored of Mr. Obama’s performance, that someone must be them.
Ok, so comparing President Obama to Saddam Hussein is an illmatic analogy, but I’m going to roll with you for another couple of paragraphs, Matt. But don’t push that thing any further. Go:
In a New York Times/CBS News poll from a few weeks ago, Mr. Obama maintained a tepid approval rating of 47 percent, with 44 percent of the voters registering disapproval. But only 20 percent approved of Congress, versus 70 percent who disapproved. Those are Roger Clemens-type numbers. They don’t get you anywhere near the Hall of Fame.
Polls also show that the president remains personally liked by large majority of the public. But really, the discrepancy in their approval ratings probably has less to do with Mr. Obama or House leaders personally than it does with the nature of our system. Presidents always seem bigger and more commanding than members of Congress. Even a beaten-down president tends to be more compelling than some guy who needs to wear a lapel pin just to make sure he can ride the right elevator.
… Working in Mr. Obama’s favor, too, is that he seems now to understand this power dynamic and how to use it. Earlier in his presidency, Mr. Obama seemed to think he could best his opponents by appealing to their sense of shared responsibility and chatting them up at Super Bowl parties. It didn’t work.
Now, though, he seems to get that a president wins when he boxes in his adversaries, forcing them either to compromise on his terms or to risk the political consequences of appearing intransigent. For the past week or so, the president has relentlessly sought the mantle of maturity, casting himself as the guy seeking bold and far-reaching compromise while his opponents seek the lower ground of marginal change.
Republicans may be right on this point; it may not be the wisest thing in the world to remake the entire federal budget in the space of a furious few days. But to the extent that Mr. Obama gets his message across more effectively, he hands Republicans the unenviable choice or either joining him in a comprehensive solution or looking self-interested for backing away and imperiling the economy.
Meanwhile, Republicans head into this disaster with polls showing they already stand to take most of the blame if the country defaults on its debts.
If John Boehner were in a stronger leadership position — like, say, without Eric Cantor biting at his ankles, and a band of ignorant extremists filling up his caucus, he’d rise to the occasion and try to be that “big man” counterweight to the president. He’d fill the Republican void and be the Tip O’Neil to Obama’s Ronald Reagan. But Boehner isn’t that kind of House speaker, and he doesn’t have that kind of weight within the GOP, particularly after he got so thoroughly rolled on the supposed $100 billion budget cuts this spring.
So Boehner can literally only watch as the debate continues to get away from Republicans, some of whom (especially in the House) have no idea they’re losing. Boehner does know, which is why while trying to rally Republicans this morning:
Politico reports “he did warn them that they will quickly lose leverage in the debate as the country grows closer to the Aug. 2 debt default deadline and Wall Street and business leaders pressure them to cut a deal.”
It’s almost painful to watch. But as long as the president continues to demand that the revenue side be addressed — in other words, that Republicans vote to raise taxes — and as long as he continues to fight this way; by being the reasonable party, willing to “put everything on the table” and buck his own side, he will remain at the head of the class. Progressives need to understand that this strategy could only work this way. If the president was railing at the rich like Bernie Sanders, he wouldn’t be in a position to be the grownup in this drama, and he wouldn’t have the moral high ground with the country’s moderate majority.
Meanwhile, the White House clearly understands that in short order, Republicans will have to either come his way, and find some face-saving way to get sufficient votes for revenue increases (to go with the votes Nancy Pelosi is going to bring to the table), or risk having to sit through a primetime presidential speech to the nation on August 3rd about how partisanship and an insistence on not asking the rich to share in the nation’s sacrifices is preventing the government from meeting its obligations, to the world, to our creditors, and to our seniors, military, and our most vulnerable citizens. And whoever gives the GOP response will come across, by default and by dint of the symbolic power of the presidency (and the lack of a “big” counterpart among Republicans), small and mean by comparison. Maybe they should let Eric Cantor do it, because Paul Ryan has pricy wined himself out of contention, most of the Republican governors are deeply unpopular, and Boehner will probably spend that evening in tears.
Good luck with that, fellas.