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Morning Jay: Obama's Achilles' Heel?

6:00 AM, Mar 25, 2011 • By JAY COST
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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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