Bully pulpit politics: Obama’s edge over the GOP


    With federal spending cuts totaling $85 billion on the horizon – this is the dreaded “sequester,” due to kick in on March 1 – Republicans are deluding themselves if they think they can pin the blame, and the dire economic ripple effects, on President Obama.

    They really seem to believe that the public will punish Obama, not them. But we should not be surprised by that, because Republicans in the Obama era have become masters in the art of self-delusion. Ignoring the fact that they were thrashed in the ’12 election, and that, in terms of poll popularity, they’re roughly on a par with used car salesmen, they persist in believing that they can face off with Obama and make him blink. They persist in believing that they can win a P.R. war with a far more popular guy who has a far bigger megaphone.

    Barring a minor miracle, it does appear that the automatic sending cuts – negotiated in the summer of 2011, as an unlikely last-resort scenario – will really happen. An $85-billion spending slash sounds like an abstraction, so let’s frame that in human terms: The government is not an abstraction. The government is comprised of real people who provide vital services to the rest of us. The government is food inspectors who keep us healthy, air traffic controllers who keep us safe, Head Start teachers who help our kids, …the list is endless. If the draconian spending cuts really take hold, many of these public servants will get furloughed, or worse.

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    Our latest fiscal crisis, arguably the sixth since 2011, would be averted if Republicans would only agree to a deal comprised of targeted spending cuts and new tax revenues garnered from the closing of special-interest loopholes. But no. The last thing the GOP wants to do is close those loopholes. For someone like Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, defending the special interests is in his DNA. A year ago, for instance, he blocked a bill (via threat of a filibuster, natch) that would have erased $24 billion in tax breaks and giveaways to Big Oil; a huge chunk of that money was supposed to help reduce the federal debt. No way McConnell was going to let that happen. And oh so coincidentally, on filibuster eve he received a six-figure donation from Texas oil interests.

    Anyway, McConnell’s current game is to blame the sequester on guess who. His House counterpart, John Boehner, is playing the same game; in a Wall Street Journal guest column today, he refers to the impending crisis as “the president’s sequester.”

    There are two big problems with the Republicans’ spin strategy: (1) They’re trying to woo an electorate that detests them, and (2) they’re trying to pin the sequester on Obama, whereas, in reality, the sequester idea was hatched back in 2011 only because Republicans at the time were threatening to drive the nation into default.

    The first point is a cinch to explain: Obama has the bully pulpit, which allows him to frame the sequester issues to his advantage, and his latest poll approval rating (according to a CBS News survey) is 52 percent positive, 38 percent negative. Congressional Republicans have no equivalent megaphone, and their latest poll rating (get ready for this one) is 19 percent positive, 72 percent negative. Nothing new about that popularity chasm. Back in December, Americans approved Obama’s handling of the fiscal cliff crisis (48-40, according to a Pew poll) – while assailing the GOP by a landslide (19-66).

    In short, Obama is popular. The GOP is not. Although, for whatever cognitive reason, the GOP still hasn’t figured that out.

    The kidnapping ransom

    And as for the GOP’s attempts to pin the sequester on Obama, here’s the abridged version of factual reality: During the summer of ’11, House Republicans threatened to crash the economy. They said they wouldn’t OK an increase in the debt ceiling – past increases had always been routine, so that Uncle Sam could keep paying his bills – unless Obama met their demands. They wanted him to sign off on deep federal spending cuts that would fall disproportionately on average Americans. They wanted him to cave to their extemist stance that taxes should not be raised on anyone ever. So after weeks of brinksmanship, the White House came up with the sequester idea: Republicans would agree to raise the debt ceiling, and, in exchange, both sides would work to sort out their budget disagreements for another 18 months or so. The automatic draconian spending cuts would kick in only as a last resort, but they would not be necessary because everyone would presumably come to their senses in time.

    Congressional Republicans loved the sequester idea; when the debt ceiling deal (including the sequester) was finally forged, 218 GOPers voted to approve it – a bare House majority, because none of the Democrats joined in. Yep, the Republicans made the sequester a reality. To quote Boehner at the time, “When you look at this final agreement that we came to with the White House, I got 98 percent of what I wanted.”

    Get the picture? The sequester was Obama’s idea in the same way that a ransom is a father’s idea after someone has kidnapped his kid.

    But I keep wondering: Why are Republicans even trying to spin it as “Obama’s sequester?” Isn’t the impending poison pill – deep spending cuts, no revenue increases – exactly what Republicans have been seeking since Obama took the oath in ’09? The sequester should be their dream scenario, one they should be eager to publicly own. Yet they’re refusing to do it.

    Why? Because, deep down, they realize that their shrink-government philosophy is a political loser. Most Americans may assail government in the abstract, but they value the services that government provides – and if those services start to disappear this spring, they won’t blame the Democratic president who believes those services are vital. Nope, they’ll blame the obstructionists who keep trying to hold us for ransom.

    How low can the GOP sink in public esteem? If it refuses to compromise and the sequester bites deep, that 19 percent approval rating may look more like a ceiling than a floor.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1



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