Interviews with natural-disaster survivors always feature some variation on the theme of “nobody saw it coming.”
No one in Washington will be able to say the same if the 2012 election proves as disruptive as now seems possible.
Both the turmoil in the financial markets and a procession of dismal new poll results point toward the same unmistakable conclusion: All of the leading figures and institutions in Washington are facing a collapse in public confidence probably unmatched since late in Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
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President Obama’s approval ratings are now frequently running at 45 percent or lower—not enough to win a second term. Two recent national polls placed the approval rating for Congress near its all-time low. Consumer confidence measures are scraping lows comparable to 1992 and 1980, years that produced electoral earthquakes (and independent presidential challengers).
“I think this is way beyond those years in the level of building frustration, problems facing the country, and anger with both political parties and the political system,” says Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who advised Bill Clinton during his 1992 victory. “This kind of building frustration and volatility has got to burst out in some way.”
Against that mounting unease, Washington’s key players look like picnickers laying out a nice spread while Vesuvius smolders behind them. The problem isn’t that Congress and President Obama are taking some vacation; it’s that neither is displaying enough urgency about finding fresh answers for the stagnant economy.
The most distressing symbol of congressional complacency came with the initial appointments this week to the super committee established under the debt-ceiling agreement to formulate a long-term deficit-reduction plan. If a majority of the committee’s members unite behind a proposal, its recommendations are guaranteed expedited House and Senate consideration. There won’t be a better chance for years to stabilize Washington’s finances.
But in their appointments to the panel,congressional leaders showed little sign of seizing that opportunity. Both Senate leaders, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pointedly excluded any member of the chamber’s bipartisan “Gang of Six,” which has already proposed a balanced plan to tame the deficit by limiting entitlement spending and raising revenues. House leaders picked loyalists, not mavericks. All of the GOP appointees have publicly indicated opposition to raising taxes, and if Republicans block revenues, the Democrats on the panel won’t limit entitlements. The appointments deepened the capital’s conviction that the exercise is doomed to stalemate.
Betting on failure is usually the safest wager in Washington. But it’s too early to entirely write off the panel. The committee’s members may not be inclined toward compromise, but many are not inimical to it. Although they haven’t challenged party doctrine as directly as the Gang of Six, committee members such as House Republicans Dave Camp and Fred Upton (both of Michigan), Senate Democrats Max Baucus of Montana and John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Senate Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio and even (to some extent) Jon Kyl of Arizona have proven willing to negotiate with the other party on difficult issues. Considering the list, one senior White House official says “the mix of people suggests a possibility for compromise—if the leadership in their party will let them do it.”
Judging by their appointments, congressional leaders today view stalemate as a safer course than compromise. Only public pressure can change that calculation, especially in the GOP, whose resistance to tax increases looms as the panel’s biggest obstacle. More dismal polls might soften that perception—as would more pressure from financial markets. That could be coming: Steve Bell, a senior director at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former top GOP congressional aide, warns that other rating agencies may downgrade U.S. debt if the super committee deadlocks.
“There’s nothing like this stock market and these political numbers to maybe convince [the committee] that the risk-reward is radically different than it now appears as to what they should do,” Republican pollster Bill McInturff says.
Many Democrats are likewise hoping that public pressure rouses Obama. Anxiety about his reelection is tangibly deepening in Democratic circles. “I would say he is only about 5 degrees from the Carter line where people stop listening to you,” one senior party fundraiser frets. A chorus of Democrats, such as Greenberg, believes that Obama needs to bookend his push for long-term deficit reduction with an aggressive package of near-term proposals to accelerate job growth and then dare the Republican House to block it, like Harry Truman in 1948. Democratic thinkers are already in overdrive: floating ideas, like tax credits for hiring or a big push to rehab public schools.
Simultaneously pursuing a bipartisan “grand bargain” on the deficit while sharpening partisan lines over an economic recovery agenda would require the political dexterity Obama displayed more as a candidate than as president. White House aides say they don’t consider those two tracks incompatible and insist that this fall Obama will more forcefully present alternatives to Republicans on both the deficit and the economy. That can’t come soon enough for Democrats worried that Obama won’t save his own job unless he provides Americans a better sense of how he intends to protect theirs.