The story of the 2012 presidential race was previewed over the last few days in an odd couple of journalist venues, an entry in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal Political Diary and this weekend’s edition of Meet the Press.
The Political Diary piece was by John Fund, a columnist who shows up everywhere around Washington. The Political Diary is an emailed publication, so I can’t provide a link. But on Wednesday, Fund laid out the politics of the budget battle from the White House’s perspective.
We all know that Mr. Obama’s approval rating has tanked among independents, where it currently rests in the mid-30-percent range. Less focus has gone to his weakness with his Democratic Party base. Hispanics have gone from 73 percent approval when the president took office to 54 percent today. Under-30 voters have dropped to the same level as Hispanics, having previously recorded stratospheric numbers as well.
But most surprising and urgent for the White House is the president’s weakness among self-identified liberals. From once almost unanimous enthusiasm, he can now claim only 75 percent approval. Liberals do not like that Mr. Obama compromised on tax and spending cuts, not to mention on addressing such touchstone gripes against George W. Bush as the Guantanamo prison. But, as Fund points out, when the president tries exciting liberals by trotting out the time-tested trope of class warfare, he further alienates independents.
It is a serous political problem when one part of your coalition is fundamentally at odds with another, which, Fund’s analysis suggests, is just where the Obama Administration finds itself now. Independents want budgets cut and debt reduced and are extremely skeptical, to put it mildly, of tax increases. Liberals are running around denying that we have a deficit and debt problem at all. And if we do, they say, we can fix it by taxing the rich. These are not reconcilable stances.
The president’s incredibly graceless recent budget speech at George Washington University showed his political team’s current theory on how to resolve the dilemma. Scare the elderly (even though everyone agrees that reforms should not touch today’s elderly). Invoke the poor (surefire with liberals and perhaps pulling back women, whose support has also flagged). And while obstructing any spending change, attack Republicans as obstructionist and extreme.
But again, this in-your-face politics is anathema to independents and women. These groups are impatient with all forms of partisan rancor. They are inclined to turn on anyone responsible for such discord, which is why the White House has tried to pin those labels on the GOP.
Meanwhile, on Meet the Press this weekend (transcript here: http://tiny.cc/bxvna), Republican political consultant Alex Castellanos said: “The candidate of hope and change has become this divisive populist who is pitting rich against poor, Republican against Democrat, red against blue. Remember the speech, there’s one America, no red, no blue? What happened to that guy?”
But Castellanos also voiced a view heard among many Republicans now: “Obama’s still favored to win this election…. [P]eople think he’s a decent guy. A Republican Congress has made him safer. He can’t spend without restraint now, so he’s like light beer, all the hope and vision without the spending calories.”
Every election is a reality check. Candidates look at the big facts – state of the economy, level of federal debt, is there a war, are we winning it – and debate about what those facts mean and which priorities are most urgent. Those who deny reality run the risk of rapidly becoming irrelevant.
Every week seems to bring forth new facts refuting the don’t-worry-be-happy approach to the budget of left liberals. In the last couple of weeks alone the International Monetary Fund has criticized the U.S. for its lack of a “credible plan” to deal with debt, and Standard & Poor’s has taken a first step toward downgrading U.S. government debt. What next?
In a conversation I had over breakfast last week with two of Washington’s smartest experts on capital markets and national policy, one asked, what happens when S&P takes away the U.S. government’s riskless rating. He said his soundings in the financial world had given him reason to believe that the markets hadn’t even come close to assessing that prospect. To me this means that, without progress on the budget, there could be more, many more facts coming at us in the months ahead. U.S. fecklessness in coming to grips with the challenge is only beginning to sink into the thinking of the global capital markets.
As we move towards the opening of the political season, both Republicans and Democrats are in the depressive phase of their respective manic-depressive cycles. Both believe they are in trouble with the electorate. And, oddly at the moment, both are right.