Saturday, April 13, 2013

Obama's Long Game

Boy are progressives ever in a lather over Barack Obama's budget. Poor Bernie Sanders has practically gone postal at the prospect that Social Security might be on the chomping block. Six months after winning what many thought was a mandate, many Democrats are openly questioning not only the President's tactics, but his sanity as well.

And while I sympathize with many of the sentiments being expressed and even share some of their concerns, my gut tells me that this isn't a reemergence of old Captain Pragmatic. Obama the appeaser isn't taking charge here. No, what I think the White House has figured out, and rightly so, is that no matter what budget it produced, it was going to be rejected by Republicans anyway. This isn't, therefore, about the 2014 budget; it's really about the 2016 budget and beyond.

Put succinctly, Obama has concluded he can't work with this Congress, certainly not the way its constituted. So his hope is that by putting out a budget that is down the middle, with cuts to entitlements and other sacred cows of the Left, but with moderate revenue increases from eliminating deductions for high-income earners and closing loopholes, and then having the GOP flatly reject it, he can use that to his advantage in next year's midterms.

It's a gamble, but one that he's apparently willing to take. Of course, if the Republicans call his bluff and say yes - extremely unlikely, but still a possibility - he could find himself in hot water with his base. Imagine a scenario where Senate Republicans go along with the White House proposal, it passes and then Boehner actually allows it an up and down vote in the House, only to have the Democrats shoot it down. That would be a political disaster for Obama that might render the rest of his second term moot.

But I must stress that the odds of that happening are remote at best. The GOP has drawn a line in the sand and is apparently willing to risk everything on keeping to their pledge of no new revenue, regardless of the cost.

If that's the case, then why is Obama being so timid with his budget? Why not go for the gusto; plant a flag so to speak and make a moral statement that clearly draws a distinction between himself and Republicans?  Remember that wonderful inaugural address in January? I certainly do. Was all that just for show? After all, didn't he win a convincing reelection over a party whose opinions and policies an overwhelming majority of voters rejected?

Well, yes and no. Yes, the President kicked old Turston Howell III right in the pants. And, yes, Democrats netted seats in the Senate and House. But a careful read of the electorate reveals some rather startling contradictions. While a majority of Americans find the GOP's views too extreme, that same majority also wants both parties to work together to resolve the nation's problems.

And that's where the no comes in. The fact is that Obama doesn't have the option to take his ball and go to his side of the court. The last thing he needs to be seen doing is drawing any lines in the sand. What he must do, and has done for most of his presidency, is convey to the voters that he is willing to compromise to achieve results, even at the risk of pissing off his base.

What most of us political junkies fail to note is that outside our little bubble, most average Americans do not pay that close attention to the day-to-day machinations of Washington, largely because they have lives, but mostly because they could care less. If you added up the combined ratings of MSNBC, Fox News and CNN, it wouldn't equal those of the Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men. And now that last year's general election cycle is over, even less viewers tune in to cable news channels.

In that environment it is risky indeed to be perceived as the tit for the other guy's tat. Yeah, I know about all that false equivalency stuff. Democrats aren't on the opposite side of the same extremist coin and neither is Obama. The dilemma here is that most voters don't and won't care about that. I've seen enough hockey games in my lifetime to know that it isn't the instigator who gets the penalty called on him; it's the guy who retaliates. Depending on voters to parse out little details like facts is a dicey proposition.

What Obama has to do here is stay out of the penalty box, politically speaking. Remain open to compromise and let the Republicans continue to paint themselves as the extremists that they are. The fact is they can't help themselves. If Democrats can just manage to calm down a little, most of them will see this for what it is. Obama is baiting the GOP with a budget proposal that actually gives them most of what they've been looking for. So by rejecting it, they will send a clear signal to the electorate that they aren't willing to come to the table and be equal partners. 

Already, the GOP is hearing it from their base for embracing gay marriage and immigration reform. If a gun control bill somehow manages to become law, there will be hell to pay for any Republican who votes for it. Democrats can use that to their advantage in 2014. Taking back the House is still a long shot, but Bill Clinton was able to pick up 5 House seats in the '98 midterms by employing the same strategy. If Obama plays his cards right, he can one up Bubba.

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