In Wednesday’s press conference, Barack Obama said:
It would be nice if we could keep every tax break there is, but we've got to make some tough choices here if we want to reduce our deficit. And if we choose to keep those tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, if we choose to keep a tax break for corporate jet owners, if we choose to keep tax breaks for oil and gas companies that are making hundreds of billions of dollars, then that means we've got to cut some kids off from getting a college scholarship. That means we've got to stop funding certain grants for medical research. That means that food safety may be compromised. That means that Medicare has to bear a greater part of the burden. Those are the choices we have to make.
So the bottom line is this: Any agreement to reduce our deficit is going to require tough decisions and balanced solutions. And before we ask our seniors to pay more for health care, before we cut our children's education, before we sacrifice our commitment to the research and innovation that will help create more jobs in the economy, I think it's only fair to ask an oil company or a corporate jet owner that has done so well to give up a tax break that no other business enjoys. I don't think that's real radical. I think the majority of Americans agree with that.
If this kind of rhetoric sounds familiar to you, it means that you have not been living under a rock your whole life. In fact, Democratic politicians have been recycling these tired old talking points for well over a century. The Democrats are the party of the people, while the Republicans the party of the well-heeled special interests. And so on. You get the idea, right?
Here’s William Jennings Bryan in 1896:
There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it…
If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.
Here’s Harry Truman in 1948:
We have been working together for victory in a great cause. Victory has become a habit of our party. It has been elected four times in succession, and I am convinced it will be elected a fifth time next November.
The reason is that the people know that the Democratic Party is the people's party, and the Republican Party is the party of special interest, and it always has been and always will be.
Here’s Walter Mondale in 1984:
One last word to those who voted for Mr. Reagan.
I know what you were saying. But I also know what you were not saying.
You did not vote for a $200 billion deficit.
You did not vote for an arms race.
You did not vote to turn the heavens into a battleground.
You did not vote to savage Social Security and Medicare.
You did not vote to destroy family farming.
You did not vote to trash the civil rights laws.
You did not vote to poison the environment.
You did not vote to assault the poor, the sick, and the disabled…
Four years ago, many of you voted for Mr. Reagan because he promised you'd be better off. And today, the rich are better off. But working Americans are worse off, and the middle class is standing on a trap door.
You get the idea. The Democratic party’s message is kind of like Lynyrd Skynyrd or Little Feat: The cast of musicians changes over the years, but the tunes are always the same. The Republicans are always undermining the average American family to give all kinds of tax breaks or benefits for “the well-to-do,” “the special interests,” “the rich” and now, apparently, the “corporate jet owners.” It's a pity that the president who once promised to move us beyond the same old partisan divide is now employing the oldest rhetorical trick in his party's playbook.
In fairness, the Republican party has its fair share of shopworn arguments – long accusing the Democrats of being closet socialists, for instance – but the interesting question in my mind is, why is Obama resorting to such tired partisan rhetoric in the middle of high-profile negotiations on the deficit?
One reason, perhaps: his numbers on this issue just plain stink. Here’s a summary of recent polling on approval/disapproval on the deficit issue for Obama.
You only get these kind of ugly numbers when a decent segment of your own political coalition disapproves of the job you're doing, which is a bad sign. And that's not all. Democracy Corps asked whether the public thinks, “the Democrats or the Republicans would do a better job with…spending and deficits.” Thirty-one percent said the Democrats would do a better job, and 48 percent trust the Republicans. Plus, a recent Rasmussen Reports poll found that “most Americans say reducing the deficit is more important than increasing food safety inspections.”
Meanwhile, although Paul Ryan's budget plan does not poll particularly well, Obama has yet to turn any Republican leaders into villains, despite his best efforts. Bloomberg found that 51 percent of respondents had no opinion of Paul Ryan. A Gallup poll taken in April found House speaker John Boehner’s job approval rating at 34-34, with 32 percent either having never heard of him or having no opinion. Compare these numbers to Newt Gingrich’s in April 1995, when Gallup found him with a 51 percent unfavorable rating. By that point Bill Clinton already had a perfect foil in Gingrich to identify himself in the minds of voters as the “adult in the room,” but Obama so far has no such counterpart.
So, lacking support on this issue and having no “malevolent” Republican playing the role of the bad guy, the president is amping up the partisan rhetoric in the hopes of moving public opinion. What else can he do?