Sometimes in politics, style matters as much as substance. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has shot to the top of the Republican presidential field as much on his charisma as on his record.
So, too, a feistier, more aggressive President Obama has emerged since Labor Day, as he makes the case for new spending to promote job creation and tax increases to pay for it. Gone are the compromises he was willing to make in July over cuts to Social Security. And when he unveils his deficit reduction plan on Monday, he is expected to propose tax hikes on millionaires – a populist gambit that will at least satisfy his Democratic base.
But will campaigning enthusiastically for a plan that faces dim prospects in a Republican-controlled Congress be enough to save his presidency?
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“He has to get what he can, campaign in a very focused and determined way, and hope that the economy shifts a little bit in his favor,” says William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Clinton.
Obama was noticeably energetic in his Sept. 8 address on jobs before a joint session of Congress. His bigger-than-expected $447 billion package includes spending on infrastructure, an extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, aid to states to prevent teacher layoffs, and tax credits for employers who hire veterans and the long-term unemployed.
Congressional GOP leaders at first reacted cautiously to the proposals, a possible sign of willingness to find common ground. Many of the ideas, after all, had enjoyed Republican support in the past. But on Sept. 12, when Obama released his legislation and his proposal for how to pay for it – tax hikes on the wealthy, private jet owners, and oil and gas companies – GOP leaders closed ranks. They cast doubt on the plan’s job-creating potential and its ability to pass Congress, in whole or in part. They also objected to Obama’s repeated demands to “pass this bill.”
Some Democrats don’t like Obama’s plan
Some congressional Democrats have also registered objections to Obama’s plan. Some members would rather see it broken up into smaller pieces, so they can support the parts they like and reject others. More conservative Democrats – in particular some who are up for reelection – are unhappy with the tax hikes, while some liberals object to the tax cuts.
But to many Democrats, who have grown increasingly disillusioned with their standard-bearer, Obama’s stylistic revival offers hope of a fighting chance in 2012.
“I do think he’s making the best of a bad situation,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “He’s doing the three things I thought he needed to do: He’s got a sense of passion back. He’s focused on the jobs issue in a way he wasn’t six weeks, two months ago. And he has a plan.”
Mr. Mellman doesn’t see Obama’s job approval jumping 10 points, up from the low to mid 40s, as a result. But these measures will “stand him in good stead,” he says.
A Gallup poll released Sept. 14 seems to bear that out, with more Americans supporting a jobs plan similar to Obama’s than opposing it. Forty-five percent want their member of Congress to vote for the plan, versus 32 percent who don’t, according to Gallup. Twenty-three percent had no opinion, which buttressed Obama’s decision to go on a selling tour – first to House Republican leader Eric Cantor’s district in Richmond, Va., then to Columbus, Ohio – House Speaker John Boehner’s home turf – then to Raleigh, N.C. On Thursday, he goes back to Ohio.
All three states are 2012 battlegrounds, though the White House insists Obama isn’t on a campaign tour. Republicans laugh at the denials. Either way, frustrated Democrats are cheering him on.
“Most important, the president needs to make people believe, really believe, that he won’t quit, that he’ll fight not for his job but for their jobs – until the bitter end,” former Clinton White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers writes in Politico.
The question is, how much of Obama’s package – if anything – can pass. It’s an opening bid, not an ultimatum. Obama himself said he would sign the parts that pass, then keep fighting to pass the rest. Ms. Myers predicts “he’ll get enough,” as long as he shows unrelenting resolve. But on Capitol Hill there’s plenty of skepticism.
Conservatives say that the president is in campaign mode and that his jobs plan is simply a campaign document.
And while Obama is giving Republicans the benefit of the doubt that they’re willing to work with him, other Democrats disagree.
“I firmly believe that Republicans in Congress, driven by a concerted group, have decided that it is not in their party’s political interest to have the president succeed at creating any jobs,” says Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Governors’ Association, speaking at a Monitor breakfast Sept. 15. “And I believe therefore they will do their very best to deny him any victories that could lead to job creation or a speedier recovery.”
Truman’s ‘do-nothing Congress’
An aggressive push for his jobs package could be a win-win for Obama. If he is able to pass at least part, he demonstrates effectiveness. If nothing passes, and the economy continues to struggle, then he can bash a “do-nothing Congress,” à la President Truman in 1948.
But the White House is hoping that Speaker Boehner will see benefit to himself and congressional Republicans in passing at least part of the bill, at a time when congressional job approval ratings are at record lows, currently in the mid-teens. The proposed extension of the payroll tax cut, costing $240 billion, may have the best shot at passage. If the current reduction is allowed to expire, that would mean an effective tax increase next year, which would be particularly awkward for anti-tax Republicans.
Another minefield awaiting Obama and the Republicans is deficit reduction.
If the efforts of Congress’s bipartisan “super committee” devolve into a rancorous deadlock, as with the debt ceiling standoff, all concerned – including Obama – could suffer additional political damage. But in the end, gridlock hurts the president more than Congress. No matter how unpopular Congress gets, as an institution, voters still tend to send their individual member back to Washington. Not so with the president.
New York House race a wakeup call?
The upset victory by the Republican in the Sept. 13 special congressional election to fill the seat of former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) of New York may be a canary in a coal mine. Many Democrats see that loss as a direct rebuke of Obama, and hope the president will see it as a wakeup call to play hardball with the GOP.
In the end, no amount of political machinations are likely to save Obama if the economy is showing no serious glimmers of improvement by at least June of next year and the Republicans nominate a candidate whom general election voters believe is a reasonable alternative.
“Obama is looking very vulnerable at this point, as many presidents who lose momentum do a year or more before the election,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. But once the Republicans choose their nominee, he adds, “I think Democrats come home and Obama buoys up a little bit.”