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Morning Jay: Obama's Achilles' Heel?

6:00 AM, Mar 25, 2011 • By JAY COST
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There are three significant issues or factors that will keep President Obama from forging a coalition of almost-everybody, à la Reagan in 1984 or Johnson in 1964, in the 2012 election. The first is the continuing weakness of the economy. Obviously, jobs remain a problem – and this weakness is also manifested in the rising cost of gasoline and food. The second is the president's health care bill. And the third is the budget deficit.

Barack Obama,

For a while, I had thought that the economy would be the president’s biggest problem, followed by health care and the deficit. But while the economy will still to be a drag on Obama (Wells Fargo predicts 8.2 percent unemployment by the end of 2012 while the consensus of Wall Street Journal economists puts it at 7.7 percent on Election Day – both estimates are higher than anything we've seen in a postwar election), I am increasingly of the opinion that the budget deficit might be the number one problem for this president in his reelection bid.

This runs contrary to many statistical models of presidential elections, which will tell you that the structural forces that shape outcomes are the number of terms of his party in office, casualties in foreign wars, and the performance of the economy. However, I generally have a low opinion of these models, and I think they are quite poorly suited for dealing with the politics of deficits. Here are two reasons why:

First, they usually try to predict the president’s share of the two-party vote, which means that third party candidacies are ignored. That includes the peculiar phenomenon of Ross Perot in 1992, wherein an eccentric Texas billionaire managed to get the votes of nearly one out of five citizens based largely on an anti-deficit campaign.

Second, these statistical models have an extremely difficult time accounting for unprecedented events. Constants cannot explain change, and the general outlines of the American budgetary situation had been constant, more or less, for 40 years. But we have broken new ground in the last few years, as the following chart suggests:

If we think of the deficit as a normally dormant issue that only intrudes upon the political discourse when it grows well beyond the long-term historic average, then the Perot candidacy suddenly begins to make sense. It was a reaction to unusually large budget deficits in 1991 and 1992. The deficits in these years were still smaller than in the mid-1980s, which suggests that there is no automatic trigger for the deficit to emerge as an issue -- but the fact that Perot was able to exploit it is very telling for 2012, when the deficit will be much larger than anything we have seen (excluding 2009 and 2010, of course). Indeed, this chart indicates substantially larger deficits than normal for the next couple years with a "new normal" deficit over the long term that is nearly twice the historical average (and growing by the end of the CBO projection window). 

If these projections are still valid by 2012, it will be bad news for President Obama. There are four major reasons why.

First, the budget deficit is a visceral issue in many respects. Everybody understands this on a gut level because we all have to balance our own books. We also appreciate the consequences of what happens when we consistently take in less than we put out. The government can't go bankrupt like private citizens, but it is still bad news.

Second, there is probably little Obama can do between now and Election Day about it. There is precious little hope for some kind of large-scale compromise on the budget deficit, given the extent of ideological polarization in Washington. One of the implicit mandates of the speaker of the House is to make sure that the majority of the majority gets its way on the chamber floor. In some instances – e.g. the passage of NAFTA in 1993 – the speaker will allow the majority of the majority to lose, but those are merely exceptions to the rule. Thus, in all likelihood, Speaker Boehner will not agree to any budget deal that does not carry the support of a majority of the Republican House caucus, which is quite conservative. Meanwhile, Obama’s reelection will require a uniquely intense mobilization of core Democratic groups. He is going to need the SEIU, AFSCME, the NEA, the AFL-CIO, and all the rest to put in a full effort, and these groups are not going to be happy with a Republican-backed budget deal. This constrains the president’s options to deal with the House Republicans.

Third, it reflects directly on his administration. We all know, or at least most of us know, the president can affect the economy, but in a limited fashion. This can give the incumbent administration some level of political cover when it comes many economic hardships. Obama in particular has the added advantage of having come into office after the recession began.

But the president does not have this kind of cover on the budget, for which he must shoulder the bulk of responsibility. Every year the president must submit to Congress a budget that is supposed to be the articulation – in dollars and cents – of his vision for the federal government. This budget can be analyzed and evaluated, and praise or blame can be clearly assigned.

Fourth, it has undermined the core premise of his administration. Liberals of an eschatological bent have long interpreted Obama’s victory in 2008 as the sign that the emerging Democratic majority – one based on African Americans and Hispanics, young people, urban professionals, etc. – had finally emerged. No doubt that Obama brought new voters out and pulled in a larger than normal share of each group, but that was only a part of the story. In fact, voters who backed George W. Bush in 2004 but then bolted to Obama in 2008 can account for the latter’s entire margin of victory in the national popular vote. Additionally, according to the exit polls, the big break for Obama came in September and October of 2008 – after Lehman Brothers fell and Congress passed the TARP. That doesn’t really square with the notion that he won because a new Democratic majority had finally emerged out of long-term demographic trends.

Putting these figures together, Obama’s victory depended heavily on voters like my in-laws. My father-in-law is a retired steelworker and lifelong (soft) Republican; my mother-in-law is a teacher’s assistant and lifelong (soft) Democrat. They were both partial to Hillary Clinton, and were very uncertain of Obama, right up to Election Day. Even so, they voted for him because, as they told my wife, “It’s time for a change.” This succinct statement summed up the feelings of millions of swing voters: the political process in Washington was broken, this breakdown was hurting the state of the union, and even though Obama was a relative unknown, at least he was offering a new, fresh approach.

But the budget deficit makes the promise of the 2008 campaign seem like a cruel joke. Not only has Obama not changed the bad habits of Washington, he has sat idly by while the Congress continued pursuing the same, wildly short-sighted policies, even after it became clear that they would lead to an unprecedented fiscal hole.

Where, then, does all of this leave us? I’ll make the following prediction. If there is nothing that President Obama and his team can do to resolve the budget deficit problem between now and next November, and if it does indeed figure largely in the campaign, we should expect a highly negative reelection campaign from the president. Perhaps it will not be on the order of LBJ in 1964, but it probably will be more negative than what Bill Clinton put forth in 1996 or George W. Bush offered in 2004. Republican efforts to rein in the budget deficit will be cast again and again as the party's perfidious attempt to realize its 80-year dream of destroying the social safety net.

What else can the president and his team do, now that CBO says his budget would create a $1.2 trillion deficit in 2012?

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