President Obama has chosen to play the political equivalent of the prevent defense as his reelection campaign approaches by deferring tough decisions on entitlements.
His budget made no attempt to change the Medicare and Social Security programs, and barely made a dent in spending cuts.
His agreement to extend the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts in last year’s lame-duck session has been followed by an embrace of the protesters in Wisconsin, both of which are off key in an economic situation that demands sacrifice from all.
Obama said in his State of the Union address that he wants to “win the future,” but his policies remain stuck in a 20th-century mindset defending a strained government entitlement system and public-sector unions.
His own message was clear: Wait for Republicans to take the initiative, at their own political peril. And that they did. The contrast between the White House and GOP messages couldn’t have been more at odds with each other last week—one that is poised to set the tone for the 2012 presidential election.
A trio of Republican governors has set the stage.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has laid out his record of fiscal competence and argued it should be the governing mantra of his party. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is making the case that making painful choices for the country’s future is both good policy and good politics. And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has sparked protests over his plan to cut public workers’ benefits and strip them of collective-bargaining rights.
There’s a reason why most politicians avoid talking about reshaping entitlements and benefits. Polls suggest that while the broad idea of cutting spending and reforming entitlement programs is popular, specific cuts are viewed much more skeptically.
Former President George W. Bush’s attempt to alter Social Security benefits was the beginning of the end for his presidency.
But the conventional wisdom might be changing.
Look at heavily unionized and Democratic New Jersey, where Christie’s stand against government spending and public-sector benefits has made him a national conservative icon.
If Christie’s rhetoric blasting union influence and calling for sacrifice can resonate in his state, it has the potential to be an effective rallying cry for other Republicans.
That’s why the protests in Wisconsin, a critical battleground state, are so consequential for the White House in 2012. It’s also why their initial instinct to publicly back labor in the battle with a Republican union-busting governor might have been a miscalculation.
Wisconsin, along with nearly all of the Rust Belt, turned on the president in a major way last year. The state, which Obama won with 56 percent in 2008, voted in a Republican governor, ousted a Democratic senator, gained two Republican House members and turned its state legislature over to the GOP.
The difference between the two elections wasn’t due to any lack of union enthusiasm for the Democratic Party. Exit polling showed labor in Wisconsin turned out as much and voted more heavily for Democrats in 2010 than during the presidential election year.
In both elections, voters in union households made up 26 percent of the electorate, according to exit polling. In fact, they voted more heavily for losing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett in 2010 (63 percent) than they did for Obama (61 percent) in 2008.
So what made the difference between a Democratic and Republican landslide? Independent voters. Walker carried independents by a 14-point margin, 56-42 percent, while Obama won independents by 19 points, 58-39 percent, in 2008. That’s a whopping 33-point swing in just two years.
The message from Republicans in Wisconsin was crystal clear in 2010—more than anywhere else in the country. Walker ran on his record of taking on the unions as Milwaukee County executive. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., campaigned as clearly against government excess as nearly any freshman senator. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., launched his campaign against the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Democratic Rep. David Obey, who retired instead of facing the voters’ verdict.
So the stakes in Wisconsin are high. Obama can’t win reelection in the Rust Belt by just winning over his labor allies and liberal activists. He needs to win back the independents that deserted his party in the last midterms.
It was very telling that the Democratic National Committee initially boasted of its work sending volunteers to protest in Wisconsin last week—with Organizing For America in Wisconsin ginning up the troops—and then, one day later, said they did nothing to encourage the demonstrations.
There was also the president’s own engagement, calling Walker’s plan an “assault on unions” to a Wisconsin reporter before radio silence descended on the subject ever since.
It’s a sign of the tricky balance the White House faces. The administration is keeping its fingers crossed, hoping the public believes Walker overreached in his desire to contain the unions’ influence. But Obama runs the greater risk of looking tone deaf by accepting the status quo of public sector workers’ benefits at a time when states are struggling to balance budgets and unemployment remains high.
That’s not a formula for winning back the center.