Lately, I’ve been staying up late at night because I’m just too stressed over the state of the union. Unable to sleep, I often find myself toggling between scores of Excel spreadsheets, crunching all sorts of numbers to get my mind around the gaping budget deficit that is threatening the country. It isn’t pretty, as we all know, and unfortunately my computations have only made me feel worse.
For instance, take the president’s FY 2012 budget. CBO’s analysis of it indicates that it will add about 8.8 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars to the deficit by 2021. That’s a lot. But it could be a lot more. CBO projects that real economic growth over the next decade will average 2.9 percent per year. If, however, real growth over the next decade mimics what we saw in the last 10 years (1.7 percent on average), my back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests we’d be talking about at least an $11.3 trillion inflation-adjusted deficit. That’s an additional $2.5 trillion just over an assumption about the economy.
Late at night, while deriving these sorts of utterly depressing numbers, I often wonder to myself, is President Obama by any chance up tonight as well, worrying about the deficit and the feasibility of his own plan?
On Wednesday, I got my answer: No, he’s fast asleep.
Not only was Obama’s speech on Wednesday political, it was completely rote, by-the-book Obama politics. He couldn’t even bring out an interesting twist to his stock partisan speech. Here’s how it always goes, with Wednesday being no exception:
I. Introduction of some grand narrative of American history.
II. Introduction of the policy problem, making clear that Obama had nothing to do with it.
III. Argument that the proposal of Obama’s opponents is inconsistent with that grand narrative.
IV. Argument that Obama’s proposal is consistent with that grand narrative.
V. Conclusion that Obama’s proposal is the only “American” solution to the policy problem.
So, the only interesting question to me is: If this was a political speech, what was its purpose?
If we look at the “proposals” to curb the deficit in this speech, we see three big ones:
1. Tax increases.
2. Military spending cuts.
None of these proposals will appeal to independent voters in the center. Not a single one. In fact, Bill Clinton enacted deficit reduction in the early 1990s by pushing the first two items, and they contributed to the Democratic debacle in 1994.
So, if it wasn't to win over the center, what was the political point? Check out how the New York Times gushed over the speech:
The man America elected president has re-emerged.
For months, the original President Obama had disappeared behind mushy compromises and dimly seen principles. But on Wednesday, he used his budget speech to clearly distance himself from Republican plans to heap tax benefits on the rich while casting adrift the nation’s poor, elderly and unemployed. Instead of adapting the themes of the right to his own uses, he set out a very different vision of an America that keeps its promises to the weak and asks for sacrifice from the strong.
The deficit-reduction plan he unveiled did not always live up to that vision and should have been less fixated on spending cuts at the expense of tax increases. It may give up too much as an opening position. But at least it was a reasonable basis for a conversation and is far better than its most prominent competitors. That is because it is grounded in themes of generosity and responsibility that, until recently, had been shared by leaders of both parties.
I think that was the point. Here’s why.
If you look carefully at Obama’s job approval numbers, you'll notice that they are being propped up by strong support among Democrats. In last week’s Gallup poll, for instance, Obama was holding 80 percent of Democrats, and just 39 percent of independents and 11 percent of Republicans, for a total job approval of 45 percent. Given that most party battles happen between the 45 yard lines, the Gallup numbers suggest that most of the voters that both sides actively play for are no longer on Obama’s side, at least for now.
What Obama cannot suffer is a drop in support among Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents. That’s how he could fall from the mid-40s into the high-30s. And that makes a huge psychological difference – like the price of oil going above $100. A president in the mid-40s is still in the game vis-à-vis the next election. A president in the 30s is flailing, in deep trouble, and appears headed for defeat. That's a perception Team Obama just cannot tolerate. A big part of their electoral strategy is to make him seem invincible. Why else would an incumbent president need a billion dollars? What is that going to buy him? You could spend a billion dollars trying to convince me that the sun rises in the west, but I can assure you it wouldn't work. Similarly, you could spend a billion trying to convince millions of former supporters that Obama's done a good job, but if they think he stinks, your money will have been wasted. A campaign based on, "Who ya gonna believe...me or your lyin' eyes?" will not be a very effective one. No, the billion is all about generating the perception of invincibility. It's all about astroturfing a seemingly inexorable Obama bandwagon, which was a core component of his 2008 primary and general election strategies. And that perception would shatter if he sinks into the 30s. That's George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter territory. That's no good.
The budget deal that Obama cut with congressional Republicans last week is unlikely to buy him much of anything with independents or Republicans in the electorate, but the negative reviews it garnered from the liberal intelligentsia were a potential problem for the president. After Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, the Bush tax cuts, bailing on the public option, and now the budget deal, it isn’t hard to envision some Democrats, maybe just 10 percent, walking away, at least in the short term. That would drop his numbers down into the 30s in some polls, puncturing this absurd notion among many that he's a virtual lock to win next November.
In other words, this speech was meant to shore up his political base in advance of 2012. A little of that old magic to remind them that he’s still "The One" for them.
And here we find the Rosetta Stone that helps us decipher the Obama enigma: While representing himself as totally unconcerned about politics, he is in reality totally absorbed by politics. A huge budget deficit staring us down? Time is of the essence? A Republican leader in Paul Ryan who seems genuinely interested in figuring out a solution? Who cares! There’s an election in 18 months. An election, for goodness sake! Is anything more important?