As he turns away from the drubbing his party received in 2010 and toward his own reelection bid, President Obama is taking a page from the well-worn playbook of his most recent Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, in an effort to set himself above and apart from an unpopular Washington.
Convincing voters he is different from Democrats and Republicans they hate will be a heavy lift, but the strategy can both advance the president’s agenda and set him up for electoral success in two years. And it’s already well under way.
This week presents several opportunities for Obama to define himself for the next two years—on the deficit, tax cuts, and the economy—and to test a variety of tactics, from appeasement to open partisan warfare.
Following the 1994 elections, Clinton pursued a triangulation strategy that saw him adopt some Republican proposals to reduce the size and influence of government while rejecting other ideas as bridges too far. That allowed Clinton to show voters he heard their message, all while portraying Republicans as out of the mainstream.
This year, Obama has the same opportunity. He has already taken a step, announcing a wage freeze on non-military government workers for two years that will save an estimated $5 billion, something Republicans have proposed before. And just as some of Clinton’s concessions angered Capitol Hill Democrats after the 1994 midterm elections, so too has Obama’s first step toward reaching out angered his base.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the pay freeze “is bad for the middle class, bad for the economy, and bad for business.” American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage called the proposal “a superficial, panicked reaction” that “amounts to nothing more than political public relations.”
Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, who represents thousands of federal employees in Washington’s Northern Virginia suburbs, called a stand-alone pay freeze “counterproductive.”
“Allowing federal employees to be used as a political football merely serves to distract from the hard choices we must make to bring our nation’s fiscal house in order,” Connolly said.
The blowback is an example of the dilemma facing the nation. Truly tackling the nation’s soaring deficits will take a bipartisan compromise the likes of which Washington almost never sees.
The pain any austerity program will cause will incite outrage among core constituencies of both the Democratic and Republican parties. It will put at risk any incumbent who makes a serious effort to make the drastic cuts needed and raise the possibility that nothing will ultimately come of this round of promises to get the nation’s fiscal house in order.
The wage freeze is only a first, tiny step toward slashing the deficit. The subject is front and center after the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, headed by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., released a preliminary report Wednesday. Commissioners are not likely to agree on a plan when they vote Friday, but a set of recommendations from Bowles and Simpson gives Obama the opportunity to maintain the momentum and show he’s serious about cutting spending.
Despite their unhappiness with the first round of spending cuts, Democrats on Capitol Hill are helping Obama in his first major postelection fight with Republicans. Democrats will bring up an extension of the Bush tax cuts this week, but only for those families making less than $250,000 a year.
Republicans want to see all the tax cuts extended; they are likely to vote against a bill that doesn’t include a complete extension.
But that would put the GOP out of step with most Americans. Surveys show a majority of Americans believe the tax cuts should be extended only for the middle class, rather than include the wealthy.
And for once, taxes are seen as at least a somewhat viable way to chop the deficit. Fully 70 percent told Gallup pollsters they would make either reducing the deficit (39 percent) or raising taxes on the wealthy (31 percent) their economic priorities, while only 23 percent would make cutting taxes their first choice, in a survey conducted November 19-21 for USA Today.
Two years after Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, Clinton used his State of the Union speech to declare the era of big government over. This year, as Obama faces a new Republican majority in the House, his speechwriters might begin testing a new line for January’s State of the Union address declaring the era of big deficits over.
The line isn’t as catchy as Clinton’s, and it’s not a cornerstone of the agenda Obama campaigned on in 2008. But convincing voters he is willing to get serious about cutting the deficit just might ensure Obama gets four more years, both to work out a better slogan and to get back to the agenda that carried him to that first historic win.