With polls showing the public doubting the president’s leadership on budget issues, his much-anticipated address on fiscal issues on Wednesday represents his best chance to get back into the debate and be seen as more than a mere observer of the policy battle that is likely to dominate Washington for the next two years.
If he falls short in the address to be delivered at George Washington University, it may turn out to have been his last real chance, with serious implications for his reelection campaign.
The president has been sharply criticized for submitting a fiscal year 2012 budget that ignored most of the recommendations of his own deficit-reduction commission and that forecast mounting debt for decades to come. Republicans pounced, seeing a vacuum that they hoped to fill with the recent unveiling of a GOP budget from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
But as painful as the short-term barbs were to take, waiting may turn out to be a long-term political boon to the president. “You could say that the president successfully outwaited the Republicans,” said William Galston, who was President Clinton’s chief domestic policy adviser.
“It’s always something of an advantage to have the other side move first. It gives you a better idea of what you’re punching and what the context is,” he said. “Ryan’s plan gives you areas where you can draw lines.”
If Obama successfully does that he will be repeating what worked so well for Clinton in 1995 and 1996. Clinton could not have rebounded from the Republican takeover of Congress had he not put out his own plan to balance the budget.
“Clinton was able to make a credible case that the issue wasn’t balancing the budget or not, but balancing the budget in a way that honors our values and builds our future,” recalled Galston. “At that point, he had seized the high ground and was able to define [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich and company as being outside the mainstream.”
Even before Obama takes to the stage at GW, the outlines of that strategy are evident, signaled clearly on Sunday and Monday by senior Obama adviser David Plouffe and press secretary Jay Carney.
Casting the Ryan plan as giving big tax cuts to millionaires while asking the “average senior” to “pay $6,000 more for health care,” Plouffe said on NBC’s Meet the Press that “we are obviously not going to sign on with that approach.” He added, “The president’s goal ... is to protect the middle class as we move forward here.”
At his briefing on Monday, Carney did not use the word “extreme” to describe the GOP plan. But he repeatedly cast it as unbalanced and heavily tipped toward the wealthiest Americans. In case you missed the point, Carney repeated his message over and over again—16 times—in a briefing that lasted less than an hour, and in which he promised the president will offer a “balanced” plan at GW.
“He will very clearly lay out his vision for deficit reduction, the need for it to be balanced, the need for it to be bipartisan,” he said. Promising a “reasonable and calm approach,” he added again, “We strongly disagree with the lack of balance in Congressman Ryan’s approach.... The president believes that we have to have balance.... and the plan that Congressman Ryan laid out does not do that, fails the test of reaching that balance.”
But the president has to be careful. He cannot use the speech just to attack. And he cannot make it simply a broad, thematic repetition of past statements. That, said Galston, “would be a big disappointment.” It is time for the White House to offer some specifics to move the debate forward, he added.
It is time, said Galston, “to get back into the game and define the playing field in terms most favorable for the president.”