White House press secretary Jay Carney was exasperated. Talking to reporters aboard Air Force One en route to New Hampshire on Tuesday, here was yet another question that he took as suggesting President Obama could have done more to lead the super committee to a happier conclusion than the total failure announced the night before.
The question was simple enough: Had the president made calls to any members of the committee in the last 11 days as the deadline for action approached? “I answered this about seven different times yesterday,” snapped Carney. “I can do that here again if you’d like. The president put forward a plan mid-September, a highly detailed and comprehensive plan, laying out exactly what he believed the super committee should do....”
Carney’s sharp reaction reflects the White House's determination not to let the congressional failure be judged a presidential failure as well. With the 2012 presidential election now less than a year away, Obama is not about to surrender without a fight the “change agent” mantle he wore so stylishly in 2008. His aides know that polls show a plurality of Americans blame Republicans for the failure and a majority accept Obama’s solution to the debt problem.
Carney pointedly noted that the failure resulted from “a congressional process.” And, in perhaps his clearest terms yet, the press secretary laid out what the White House saw as the president’s three roles in that process. First was to “make clear” to the American public, the committee and Congress as a whole both his plan and his vision for deficit reduction. Second was to “rally public support beyond his vision.” Third, he said, was to “lead his party to accept the kind of tough choices that the president was asking Democrats to make....”
On all three, Carney argued that the president fulfilled his duties: He did present a plan, he did go to the public and move the polls in his direction, and he did succeed in getting Democrats on the committee to accept things they previously had opposed.
Unlike in the debt-ceiling debacle, when Obama was forced to referee a draw that nearly destroyed both sides, the president does not believe, his advisers have told National Journal, that a direct intervention in these proceedings would have done anything but polarize the process even further.
Because of this, White House aides who saw the need to do damage control after the messy summer debate over the debt ceiling today are confident that the collapse of the super committee will inflict far more harm on Republicans in Congress than on the president. Instead of damage control, they are pressing ahead with the president’s jobs program, intent on showing him as the person in Washington fighting to right the economy.
This optimism is fueled by the reality that few Americans outside Washington closely followed or even understood what the super committee was doing and the fact that none of the mandatory cuts triggered by the committee’s failure will be seen before next year’s election. “They had meetings. Nothing happened at the meetings. Most people didn’t even know they were meeting,” said Ohio-based Democratic political strategist Jerry Austin. “The news coverage wasn’t the same as the summer. It wasn’t a do-or-die thing where they had to pass something to save the country from going bankrupt. I don’t think anybody paid any attention.”
Austin said there is no sign in Ohio that the committee’s failure affects Obama’s standing there. “I don’t think it will be held against him that this committee could not compromise on anything. That’s not Obama’s fault,” he said. To guard against the public focusing on the failure, the White House plans to hammer home the message that Democrats and the president were willing to compromise but ran afoul of Republican intransigence.
“You know the president laid out a plan a couple of months ago and he did a good job of rallying the American people to support that approach,” said a senior administration official who talked to reporters at the White House. “If you look at what Democrats on the super committee did, they went very far in terms of their willingness to agree to spending cuts and other savings. So we’ve seen a lot of movement in our party, and the president’s leadership has to do with that.”
Outside Washington, Boston-based Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh also sees little damage to the president from this setback. She is much more worried about bigger things threatening Obama’s reelection. “Obama isn’t going to be held accountable for Congress but for whether he has been able to do enough to get the economy back on track and get people back to work,” she said. “And the way he is going to have to win that argument is by using Congress as a foil, specifically Republicans in Congress.” She said he can point to successes in foreign policy and make the point that “when I can act without Congress, I’m successful.”
But, Marsh said, Obama still suffers politically for waiting too long to focus on jobs. “They should have started on jobs three years ago. But when they finally did start to do things, not only did the Republicans say no, they said 'hell, no'. And people get that.”
She said many voters may be “disappointed” that Obama has not been more of the change agent as promised. But, she said, as long as Republicans in Congress keep blocking him, he gets to keep the label. The problem is that with every failure in his dealings with Congress, the public perception grows that Washington is broken and Obama cannot fix it. It is critical that he keep the spotlight on Capitol Hill as the heart of the dysfunction.