CP Political Analysis: Has Obama Traded Governing for Campaigning?

Recent actions by President Obama suggest he may have given up on finding common ground with Republicans on legislation. Instead, Obama has set his sights on winning in November 2012 with an energized turnout from his liberal base, expert campaign strategists say.

In the negotiations leading to passage of the Budget Control Act in early August, liberals and Democrats complained that Obama was giving away too much and he had been too conciliatory with Republicans. Obama should have been more combative and stood firm to his principles, the critics argued.

Recently, however, Obama might be giving his liberal base what they have been asking for, analysts say.With his jobs bill and deficit reduction proposals released this month and his recent speeches, Obama has signaled that he has given up on trying to work with Republicans.

“I think he made it pretty clear … he has chosen confrontation over compromise. He doesn't want to have negotiations any more with the congressional leaders of the Republican Party. He has proposed plans he knows they are not going to pass. … He's going around to all these swing states. … His time negotiating with Republicans is done,” A.B. Stoddard, columnist for The Hill, said this week on “Fox News Sunday.”

Obama's jobs bill proposal, dubbed the American Jobs Act, was announced with much fanfare before a joint session of Congress Sept. 8. His proposals included increased spending on infrastructure and schools, extending the payroll tax cut and a tax credit for businesses that hire new workers. The American Jobs Act provides a focus for Obama’s speeches as he travels the country. He can claim that he is building support for his proposal to get it passed in Congress, a legitimate presidential function. But critics point to the fact that not enough Democratic senators support it to ensure its passage with a simple majority, never mind a filibuster-proof 60 votes.

It seems better suited to building support for his reelection, they say.

At the time of announcement, Obama said the bill would be paid for but did not explain how. When he announced his deficit reduction plan Sept. 19, it turned out that his plan to pay for the bill is to increase taxes on the wealthy by $1.5 trillion, by eliminating the Bush tax cuts, increasing the capital gains tax and the as-yet undefined Warren Buffet “millionaires tax,” all three policies strongly supported by the liberal Democratic base. The plan also adds about $470 million in long-term spending cuts to the $1.2 trillion spending-cut-task given to the supercommittee created by the Budget Control Act in the wake of the debt ceiling showdown this summer.

Many analysts consider the strategy politically astute. It allows Obama to claim that his plan is paid for, but it also allows him to avoid making concrete suggestions for cutting the federal budget that could be politically unpopular.

In his address to Congress and his many stump speeches since, Obama repeatedly told Congress to “pass this bill,” though he has done little to work with Congress to pass the bill.

Obama would, obviously, like to blame Republicans for not passing his legislative proposals prior to the next election. The argument may become more difficult, however, when his own party in Congress has shown little interest in passing his proposals. Even in the Democratic-controlled Senate, the American Jobs Act is a low priority. The White House reportedly never met with Democratic leaders to seek their input before announcing the American Jobs Act.

Ironically, there are parts of the American Jobs Act and Obama's deficit reduction proposals that could garner Republican support.

Obama proposed, for instance, reforming unemployment insurance based upon ideas implemented in Georgia. In a Sept. 18 interview on “Fox News Sunday,” House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said that the plan “sounds interesting” and it is something that House Republicans are “looking at.”
Both Obama and Republicans have called for simplifying the tax code by getting rid of deductions and credits. At the same time, however, he called for additional tax credits in his jobs bill (for companies that hire veterans).

Obama also asked Congress during his jobs bill speech to pass trade agreements with Panama, Columbia and South Korea, a move most Republicans support. The trade agreements cannot be voted on until Obama sends them to Congress, something he has yet to do. The two congressional leaders of his own party, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also oppose the agreements.

However, so far Obama is showing little interest in working with Republicans on these provisions.

The clearest indication that Obama's jobs bill and deficit reduction package is designed more for his 2012 re-election campaign than an attempt to actually create jobs and reduce deficits is the “Buffett tax” or “millionaire's tax.”

Millionaires and billionaires should pay their “fair share” in taxes, Obama argues. The implication is that the United States does not already have a progressive tax system in which the wealthy pay a higher proportion of their wealth in taxes.

Tax hikes are a major issue, possibly the issue, for the liberal Democratic base. But The Washington Post noted in its fact checker blog that the wealthy already pay more in taxes than the poor and middle class, even after taking regressive payroll taxes into account. “It may be an effective political argument, even if [taxing the wealthy more is] not really much of a problem,” blogger Glenn Kessler concluded.

Obama's deficit reduction plan does not offer any details about how the “millionaire's tax” would actually work, further indication that it was designed as a stump speech rhetorical tool rather than an actual policy to be implemented, critics say.

During the debate over raising the nation's debt ceiling, Obama positioned himself as a centrist between the Republicans and Democrats in Congress. This was similar to President Clinton's “triangulation” strategy that helped him win re-election in 1996.

This month, however, Obama appears to have pivoted from Clinton's 1996 strategy to President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election strategy.
Whereas Clinton's 1996 strategy was to gather the support of independents and moderate Republicans, Bush's 2004 strategy, masterminded by Karl Rove, was to mobilize his base – Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Bush mostly won by maximizing turnout of his base.

Apparently to this end, Obama delivered a fiery speech to the Congressional Black Caucus Saturday.

“Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining. Stop grumbling. Stop crying. We are going to press on. We've got work to do,” Obama proclaimed with the cadence of a black preacher.

In a panel discussion on "Fox News Sunday," analyst Juan Williams agreed that Obama was in "full campaign mode" at Saturday’s event.

“He's in the pulpit, he's before a black audience last night, and that's what they wanted. … There's President Obama throwing red meat to the liberal base, and the reason he's doing it is because they are convinced on the left and at the White House … the President has been fooled, he's been suckered. He's tried to negotiate and has run into total obstinacy from the Republicans. … President Obama felt he had to appeal to independents by showing that he can be bipartisan and then he comes up looking like he got taken. So the base wants him to fight, to be more aggressive and that's what he's doing now.”

Stoddard thinks that would be a bad re-election strategy. “If the president doesn't get back to the table with House Speaker John Boehner and find a path to meaningful entitlement reform, which he was invested in July, and has now abandoned, and really find a way to come up with a big deal, it will be very hard for him to convince Americans that he did everything he could next spring, summer and fall and get re-elected."

Obama supporters “want to march, but they don't want to march to bipartisan cooperation when they see the President having to give up so much in pursuit of getting Republicans on board,” Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said on ABC's “This Week” on Sunday.

With Obama's approval rating hovering in the low 40s (according to Gallup), his path to re-election is looking increasingly more narrow. Obama's campaign strategists may have calculated that winning a few key swing states, such as Ohio, Florida and Nevada, offers the greatest chance of success. To win those states, Obama needs his base – liberals, young people, blacks and Latinos – to turn out in high numbers.

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