The fraying of a deal to extend payroll-tax cuts and unemployment benefits gives President Obama a golden opportunity to tar House Republicans as the source of Washington’s dysfunction while championing a popular issue.
But the renewed gridlock could still backfire on Obama, who risks being wounded yet again by congressional inaction as he ramps up his reelection bid. Republican opponents on the campaign trail are already blaming him for the mess.
“It’s incredibly tricky ground,” said Lanae Erickson, deputy director of the Social Policy and Politics Program of the centrist Democratic group Third Way. But “there is an opportunity to capitalize on this and hang it around necks of Republicans,” she said. “I think the American people’s patience is wearing thin with the tea party, and they’re really tired of government being held hostage by them. This is just going to be another nail in that coffin.”
Democrats moved quickly on Monday to pin the legislative standstill on tea party Republicans in the House, who objected to the deal struck between Senate Democrats and Republicans to extend the payroll-tax break by two months. The deal passed the Senate with 89 votes, and its passage by the House was considered so routine that the Senate went home.
But some House Republicans decided they wanted to hold out for a year-long extension of the expiring tax cuts, throwing Washington into disarray. Democrat after Democrat repeated throughout Monday that it’s the tea party, not mainstream Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner, whose obstinacy could result in tax hikes on the middle class.
“Speaker Boehner got on the phone with his caucus, he tried to sell it,” Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, said during an interview on MSNBC. “He had a tea party revolt, reversed his position, and he’s now put in danger a tax increase of $1,000 on 160 million Americans.”
White House officials have tried blaming Republicans and the tea party before, but to little benefit. Their protestations that Republicans were responsible for the gridlock during debt-ceiling negotiations didn’t stop Obama’s approval ratings from suffering: An August ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted afterward found 67 percent of people had little or no confidence in his ability to make the right decisions about the economy. His overall approval ratings hit their lowest point to date, with Gallup’s weekly average showing him at 40 percent for much of August.
But Obama seems to be gaining ground now by bashing Congress. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows him at 49 percent job approval, more trusted than congressional Republicans to handle taxes and protect the middle class, and tied with the GOP on handling the economy.
Democrats have several advantages now that they didn’t during last summer’s debt debacle. For one, the payroll-tax cut extension is popular: An AP-GfK poll released last week reported 58 percent of the public wants the tax break extended, compared to just 35 percent who don’t. Raising the debt ceiling, by contrast, was highly unpopular with the public.
Most importantly, Democrats can also point to the fact that the tax-cut deal was acceptable to most Senate Republicans, only to be scuttled by tea party elements in the House. That’s a clear-cut example, said Third Way’s Erickson, that the GOP has been hijacked by a group unpopular with swing voters – a contrast that didn’t exist during previous standstills. “I think the fact so many Senate Republicans had the rug pulled out from under them in a shocking way, it helps Democrats,” she said.
The direct ramifications of a failed deal on people’s pocketbooks could bring sharp backlash, Erickson added, particularly amid the holiday season. “This is something people can touch and feel,” she said. “This is money in their paychecks either there or not there on January 1.”
The very real consequences of not reaching a deal are one reason the president continues to run a risk. The other is the spirited Republican presidential primary campaign. One of Obama’s prospective opponents, Mitt Romney, says the gridlock is symptomatic of his failed leadership.
“I learned how to be respectful for people who have different views than myself, and to find a way to lead in a setting where not everybody’s in the same party,” Romney said during a campaign stop on Saturday, referencing his time as governor of blue-state Massachusetts. “And this president’s been unable to do that. I think it’s in part because he’s never had the opportunity to lead before. He didn’t lead in the Illinois Senate. He didn’t lead in U.S. Senate. So he’s taking his first run at leadership in the White House. It’s not a place for on-the-job training.”
Newt Gingrich put himself firmly behind Boehner and the rebellious House Republicans. “I support Speaker Boehner,” he said on Monday while campaigning in Davenport, Iowa. “I think it’s absurd for the Senate to go home passing a two-month tax bill. It is utter chaos in terms of the accounting systems. They ought to come back before Christmas, pass a one-year extension – get it over with. The American people and the American economy cannot wait for this kind of game playing. They ought to get it done this week.”
If taxes go up and jobless benefits end, the danger for Obama is voters won’t blame Republicans -- they’ll simply blame all of Washington. And if that happens, it will be hard for him to escape the blowback.