Persuading Americans to accept the proposals Obama outlined should be easy, because they are popular in the abstract. When polled, majorities have said they favor ending the Bush tax cuts for the rich (including half of self-identified Republicans) and that they don’t want spending reductions to come at the expense of economic growth. By rights, he should easily win the argument.
But Obama has repeatedly found it quite difficult to sell the public on policies that they already endorse. Republicans lawmakers are more united around the goal of deficit reduction than Democrats are, which might explain why 46 percent of Americans think the Republicans have a better chance of fixing the country's deficit woes compared to only 33 percent for Democrats.
Voters who back the president -- and Democrats in general -- tend to associate spending cuts with Republicans and are significantly less willing to voice support for deficit-reduction policies in the form of cuts. As Obama has pivoted in that direction, Democrats have not showered the president with applause. Some progressive elites have castigated him for even conceding to the Republican idea that the debt is a major problem.
In many ways, this illustrates a fundamental frustration of his presidency: Obama has been forced to own policies that many in his party's base do not like.
But the president had an answer to that on Wednesday.
"I say that if we truly believe in a progressive vision of our society, we have the obligation to prove that we can afford our commitments. If we believe that government can make a difference in people’s lives, we have the obligation to prove that it works – by making government smarter, leaner and more effective," he said.
Obama’s advisers think he suffers problems with independents when he’s pulled into mushy, grueling Washington policy battles. That’s one reason why he waited until the last minute to publicly weigh in on the fiscal 2011 budget resolution. It’s also one reason why he is punting on many of the specifics, leaving those to his colleagues in Congress: His time frame is much longer than theirs.
A senior administration official said that the White House will be diligently drawing distinctions between itself and Republicans for the next 18 months, up to November 2012. By that point, Obama hopes that independents will be persuaded that his vision for reining in government spending is serious -- and that he's not, as potential GOP presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota put it on Tuesday, “in over his head.”