Is Obama moving to the middle?
By Ben Pershing
More than a decade ago, a first-term Democratic president who failed to achieve his biggest priority -- health-care reform -- and took a subsequent drubbing at the polls decided to recast himself as a fiscal hawk, committing to spending discipline and eventually cutting a deal with Republicans to balance the budget. Bill Clinton was able to recover from the blows to his popularity he suffered in the first two years of his presidency, but he also earned the lasting distrust of some liberals, who were dismayed that he gave up on their priorities and charted a more centrist path.
Is President Obama planning to follow that blueprint? His advisers insist that he won't, but it's difficult not to hear a faint echo of the Clinton pivot in Obama's forthcoming announcement on spending. "To counter the soaring federal deficit, which polls show is a major factor in voters' discontent, Obama will announce that the budget blueprint he files next week will contain a 'hard freeze' on discretionary spending that lasts through 2013, an effort his advisors liken to the fiscal discipline average families impose on themselves every day," the Los Angeles Times writes. The freeze won't include the Pentagon, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, the State Department or entitlement programs, meaning that it will apply to only a fraction of government spending. And the New York Times says "the payoff in budget savings would be small relative to the deficit: The estimated $250 billion in savings over 10 years would be less than 3 percent of the roughly $9 trillion in additional deficits the government is expected to accumulate over that time."
The Washington Post says White House officials "described the freeze as a critical component of a broader deficit-reduction campaign intended to restore confidence in Obama's ability to control the excesses of Washington and the most lavish aspirations of his own administration." But Huffington Post writes "the spending freeze is likely to meet with tepid support among the president's fellow Democrats, many of whom view self-imposed limitations as risky politics and policy at a time of deep economic recession." Robert Reich doesn't like the idea, sourly comparing it to when "Clinton summoned Dick Morris to the White House to figure out how Clinton could move to the right and better position himself for reelection." Liberals in Congress are frustrated already by this proposal, but if the left is angry, who in the administration is to blame?
"Obama's liberal backers have a long list of grievances," the Wall Street Journal writes. "The Guantanamo Bay prison is still open. Health care hasn't been transformed. And Wall Street banks are still paying huge bonuses. But they are directing their anger less at Mr. Obama than at the man who works down the hall from him. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, they say, is the prime obstacle to the changes they thought Mr. Obama's election would bring. ... For the president, Mr. Emanuel is a useful foil, playing a role akin to that of James Baker, who absorbed attacks from unhappy conservatives while chief of staff to Ronald Reagan. Mr. Emanuel is a centrist cut from the Bill Clinton mold, and his presence is useful as the president tries to cut deals with centrists and conservatives. ... Allies say the chief of staff's strategy is purely realistic, that compromise is required in order to pass legislation. Mr. Emanuel's defenders note that Mr. Obama campaigned as a pragmatist who would value bipartisanship over ideology."
The spending freeze is only a portion of the policy initiatives Obama plans to unveil during his State of the Union address Wednesday. At an event Monday, Obama and Vice President Biden released a host of tax proposals designed to help the middle class. The Associated Press says Obama's "push to create jobs includes a new tax credit for small businesses that add employees, an idea that has appeal as the nation struggles with an unemployment rate topping 10 percent. It is an idea, however, that fell flat in Congress when Obama first proposed it last year because lawmakers didn't know how to target the credit effectively. The Obama administration still hasn't provided details on how the tax credit would work, and some tax experts question whether it would." Still, moderate Democrats are eager to hear more such popular, small-scale initiatives from the administration. Bill Nelson said Monday he thinks "the president is going to have to scale back his agenda after we pass healthcare reform."
How much will we know about the way forward on health care by the time Obama takes the dais? "Senate Democratic leaders said Monday that they don't expect to have a decision on how to move forward with health care reform in time for" the State of the Union, Politico reports, adding "The absence of a clear way forward could create significant challenges for Democrats, who would lack a unified message to present to the nation in time for Obama's speech." Roll Call writes that the address "may give him his last, best chance to reboot his health care agenda in the minds of the public and regain momentum shattered by the loss of the Senate Democrats' 60-seat supermajority." The story notes that "Senators and the White House still seem to be clinging to hopes" that the House will pass the Senate bill, even though "[t]he challenges for the Senate bill are enormous." House and Senate leaders are working on a package of "fixes" to the Senate bill that could be passed via reconciliation, but Nancy Pelosi hasn't yet asked her reluctant caucus to approve such a plan. Complcated as it is, the New York Times reports reconciliation "may be the only route available to win passage of the sort of ambitious overhaul that he has pressed as his top domestic priority. And the White House and Congressional leaders have known all along that they might need to employ the tactic to finish a health bill."
Democrats having a bad January already got another dose of sour news Monday, when Beau Biden announced that he would not run for the Senate seat vacated by his father. The Washington Post writes that Biden's candidacy "was supposed to be the sure thing" but that "appointed Democratic senators have clouded, rather than clarified, the party's electoral prospects in 2010," in Delaware as well as Illinois and Colorado. Massachusetts is already lost. Republicans hope to replicate their Massachusetts success in Illinois, the New York Times writes. "Democratic election expectations were crumbling Monday," the Hill writes, after the twin blows of Biden's decision and Marion Berry's retirement announcement.
Roll Call writes that "House Democrats are girding for the possibility of more retirements in the wake of last week's special election debacle in Massachusetts." Politico reports that Senate Democrats are being urged by the DSCC to force GOP opponents into a corner by forcing them to answer controversial questions, like whether they believe Obama is a U.S. citizen and/or a socialist.
Democrats' declining electoral prospects come as the public may be craving more checks and balances in Washington. The latest CNN poll found that "45 percent of people questioned in the poll said Democratic control of Congress is a good thing, with 48 percent disagreeing. The margin is within the survey's sampling error. But the results are a shift from last June, when 50 percent felt that Democratic control of both chambers of Congress was good and 41 percent felt it was bad for the country. ... According to the poll, 46 percent of the public has a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, with 44 percent viewing the Republican Party in a positive light. That's a change from October, when 53 percent had a favorable opinion of Democrats and 36 percent saw the GOP in a positive light."
January 26, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
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