For many people who care deeply about the deficit and watched a raft of spending programs come to life in recent years, President Obama has come up short—an all-too-familiar dilemma for Democrats, and one that faced the previous Democratic president. Bill Clinton had raised taxes in 1993 and was getting hammered by resurgent congressional Republicans all through 1994 and into 1995. But Clinton started turning the issue to his advantage with a nationally televised speech on June 13, 1995. Speaking from the Oval Office, he announced a plan to balance the budget in 10 years and contrasted his plan with GOP proposals, noting that he would better protect education, Medicare, and Social Security. Six months later, after two government shutdowns, the president agreed to achieve balance in only seven years but came out looking like the protector of middle-class programs that the Republicans wanted to eviscerate.
When President Obama presents his long-awaited deficit plan on Monday, he’ll be reading directly from this playbook. As long as the debate is about whether to balance the budget, Republicans have the upper hand. But by recasting it as a debate over how to balance the budget, Clinton cast himself as the winner. Watch Monday for Obama to pick up where Clinton left off.
Obama’s challenge is to capture a bit of the alchemy that worked for Clinton, who turned the deficit from a liability in 1995 to an asset in 1996. But it will not be an easy feat to duplicate. “The calculus is a little different,” notes William Galston, who was Clinton’s top domestic-policy adviser at the time of what he calls the “fateful” decision to balance the budget in June 1995. In contrast to Obama’s record, the deficit had already fallen on Clinton’s watch, and he had preemptively committed himself to deficit reduction in his earlier budgets. But the June 13 speech “moved the goal posts” and put Republicans on defense, Galston says.
Obama is in a tougher situation because the deficit is so much bigger and “because Clinton had rejected the arguments to go in a more stimulatory direction at the beginning of his administration,” Galston cautions. “He didn’t have to push off against his own administration’s policies in order to move in the direction of fiscal restraint.” Even with polls showing the public skeptical of Obama on the deficit, though, Galston sees hope. “He is not as far behind as one might imagine. So it is ‘mission difficult’ but not ‘mission impossible.’ ”
White House aides have told reporters that the recent fight over the debt ceiling burnished the president’s credentials as a fiscal hawk simply because polls show that more Americans agree with his calls for a “balanced” approach to cutting deficits. But a poll released on Thursday by the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way should chasten them. It surveyed voters who voted for Obama in 2008 but either switched to Republicans or didn’t vote in 2010. Worse, the poll was conducted only in swing states. All 12 went for Obama in 2008; in three of them—Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina—he won with less than 52 percent of the vote and can ill-afford defections.
The poll found that many who switched from Obama to Republicans are “highly deficit-sensitive,” according to Jim Kessler, senior vice president at Third Way. “They place it very high on the scale of importance.” And they do not consider Obama an ally. They see him being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the debate. “There is a difference between embracing deficit reduction and being resigned to accepting deficit reduction,” said Kessler, who added that Obama’s tone on Monday will be important. He especially cautions the president to stop talking so much about taxing millionaires. “He can talk about taxes, but only as a solution to reduce the deficit. The millionaires and billionaires line is like fingernails on a chalkboard for a lot of the people who might otherwise support the president.”
The best thing going for the president, Kessler added, is that many of these “switchers” would like a reason to come back to Obama. “They want the president to do well. They hope he succeeds. And they are scared of the tea party,” Kessler said. “If the president does a credible job on deficit reduction, he can start changing some minds in the middle.”
But it is difficult to see how Obama can win those swing states if he cannot woo back many of the voters who deserted his party in 2010. That is the backdrop for Monday’s presentation. “The president has been beaten up pretty badly ever since last December, when he distanced himself from his own fiscal commission,” Galston said. “He’s been accused of never putting his own plan for long-term fiscal restraint on the table. And, whether fair or not, that charge has stuck.”
On Monday, he gets a second chance, nine months after many allies wish he had given this speech. It may not be as dramatic a moment as Clinton had in June 1995. But, like Clinton’s speech, it’s Obama’s best chance to change the Washington discussion.
This article appears in the September 17, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.