This last summer, President Obama had an epiphany: Republicans are not going to negotiate with him. One might say that this realization came a little late. (And in fact, I did say that.) It’s not exactly clear why Obama thought he could persuade Republicans to compromise when Republicans had been saying that they wouldn’t compromise, that any bi-partisan support they provided would only make him more popular, and that their top goal was to defeat him. But he tried nonetheless, even offering House Republicans an absurdly generous deal to reduce the long-term deficit by $4 trillion, locking in most of the Bush tax cuts and reducing tax rates to low, low levels.
Republicans walked away from Obama’s Crazy Eddie Budget Sale, with tax rates so low he had to be crazy to offer them, and Obama saw his approval rating plummet in the process. He’s not trying to cut a deal any more. He’s trying to clarify his positions to the public.
When you’re running a play designed to communicate to the public, you have certain advantages you don’t have when you’re trying to pass a bill. You can communicate a relatively clear message. The fight right now is between Obama’s desire to send that clear message and the GOP’s desire to muddle it.
The first point of clarity concerns the long-term versus the short-term. The economic consensus here is obvious. In the short run, we need to jack up the deficit in order to boost consumer spending and jolt the economy out of its rut. In the long-run, we need to bring spending and revenue closer in line with each other. One of the great Republican public relations successes of the Obama era has been to conflate the two. The GOP used the stimulus debate to blame Obama for the trillion-dollar budget deficits that were in fact projected to occur even before he took office.
Obama’s strategy now is to keep the two things separate. Last week, he introduced a jobs plan to cut taxes and spend more on things like infrastructure. He introduced his plan to reduce the long-term deficit today.
Republicans want to muddle up the distinction between the short-term crisis and the long-term deficit. Last week, they attacked his jobs plan for increasing the deficit, and this week, they attacked his deficit plan for killing jobs.
Second, Obama wants to clarify the clash of priorities. His specific proposals — middle-class tax cuts, new infrastructure spending, higher taxes on the rich — are popular. Most of his health-care proposals were popular, too. But when they get sucked into the legislative morass, the clarity of the message disappears, and Americans lose track of who stands for what. Obama wants to preserve this clarity by demanding that Congress vote for his plan as a whole. Republicans want to muck it up by breaking up the plan into little pieces.
Obama also wants to clarify just who is responsible for the economy and the long-term budget. This is the hardest part. People instinctively hold the president responsible for everything that happens. They think of the president as a kind of king. Obama wants to make the point that he is not getting his way, and that the blame for the current state of affairs lies with Republicans, but he wants to do so without appearing weak. That’s why he is avoiding getting sucked into legislative negotiations that he knows won’t work.
Obama’s negotiating strategy from his first term was a trade-off. He lost the public relations benefits of taking clear, uncompromising stances because he wanted to end up signing laws, like the stimulus and health-care reform. Now he understands he isn’t going to end up with a law, so he might as well try to come away with a public relations victory.