Obama Gives the GOP an Opening
March 19, 2009
President Barack Obama and his West Wing lieutenants are playing on the world’s largest stage, yet act as if no one is watching them when they contradict their campaign promises. That behavior is unwittingly giving the Republicans an opening.
For example, Team Obama thinks the president, having spent a good portion of the campaign decrying the $2.9 trillion in deficits during the Bush years, can now double the national debt held by the public in 10 years. Having condemned earmarks during the campaign, the Obama administration now believes it can wave through 8,500 of them in the omnibus-spending bill, part of the biggest spending increase since World War II.
With the Dow at 7,486 and unemployment at 8.1%, Mr. Obama says the economy is fundamentally sound. Does he suppose the nation won’t recall him attacking John McCain last September for saying the same thing—when the Dow was at 11,000 and unemployment at 6.2%?
Candidate Obama vowed to end “the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics.” Yet his administration geared up MoveOn.org to lead a left-wing coalition to pressure Republicans and centrist Democrats, organized a daily conference call to coordinate liberal attack dogs, and strategized with Americans United for Change on ads depicting the GOP as the party of “no.”
Rather than working with Republicans on the budget, the administration attacked them as mindless obstructionists. Yet the administration’s policies are not nearly as popular as one might suppose.
For example, the liberal Center for American Progress recently found that 61% of Americans say government spending is almost always wasteful and inefficient, and 57% think free market solutions are better than government at creating jobs and economic growth. A late February poll by NBC News/Wall Street Journal found that 61% were concerned “the federal government will spend too much money” and “drive up the budget deficit” versus 29% concerned the government “will spend too little.”
These general attitudes translate into opposition to specific policy initiatives. For example, CBS found support for the stimulus bill falling to 51% in February from 63% in January. Meanwhile, opposition to more money to bail out banks rose to 53% in March from 44% in February.
This, in turn, is affecting Mr. Obama’s job approval ratings, already just average for a new president. Last week’s Pew poll showed Mr. Obama’s approval at 59% with 26% disapproval, down from February’s 64% approval and 17% disapproval. His standing on the economy is also falling: Newsweek found in January that 71% were confident Mr. Obama would be able to turn around the economy, while 26% were not. By March, his ratings had fallen to 65% confident, 33% not.
Republicans sense the opportunity. The House GOP leadership deputized the top Budget Committee Republican, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, to prepare an alternative budget. The GOP budget won’t raise taxes, gets spending and debt under control, and will result in a stronger economy with more jobs. House Republicans plan a major selling effort back home during the coming recess. Minority Leader John Boehner is already up on YouTube extolling the plan.
Senate Republicans will not prepare a complete alternative, but they will offer a robust package of amendments, with a wave of proposals for each of the three weeks the upper chamber will devote to the budget. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander foreshadowed the GOP’s theme by saying the Democratic budget taxes, spends and borrows too much.
Sen. Alexander is also working with Sen. Judd Gregg, the ranking Budget Committee Republican, on a statement of budget principles that sharpens the contrast between the two parties’ approaches to America’s economic future.
The GOP’s challenge is winning attention for its vision. True, its megaphone isn’t nearly as big as those of the White House and the Congressional Democratic majorities, and Mr. Obama still has the upper hand. Yet by discarding so much of what people found appealing in him, Mr. Obama may change that.
Every president eventually depletes his political capital. Some have done so advancing great, difficult causes. Others squander it because of missteps, and what the public views as breaches of faith. Having been president for all of eight weeks, Mr. Obama retains much residual goodwill and could still change course on the budget to reach across the aisle. But his current strategy has made him weaker than he was and weaker than he needs to be. It’s turning into a costly two months for America’s 44th president.
Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.