President Obama put the Republican party on notice last night that while he would still talk the bi-partisan talk, he was done merely calling for unity and an end to bickering. It was clear that was making him look weak as the Republicans rejected compromise and continued their unrelenting attack on the President. From now on he’s going to “give ’em hell,” as evidenced by his speech before a joint session of Congress.
Besides evoking the same kind of blunt straight talk as President Truman, he also set the Congress up for the charge of being a do-nothing Congress. The most important parts of Obama’s jobs plans — the parts that can genuinely reduce unemployment — cost money. President Obama’s plan pays for this by closing corporate and individual tax loopholes. It does not constitute a significant tax hike on the wealthy, and it’s easily defensible politically.
This puts the GOP in a bind. If they reject Obama’s plan outright, labeling it just ‘the same failed policies,’ they’ll be refusing to act on the biggest problem Americans perceive in the country right now. Obama’s approval ratings are low, but they are above those of the Republican Congress and especially the tea party! His bit at the end about how there are 14 months before the next election so playing politics with this is wrong will resonate. If the Congress doesn’t act, he can run against Congress and, as his speech showed, with a new kind of fire that will rally his base and bring independents sick of tea party rhetoric back. He may not have the level of support and hope he had in 2008, but a vote is a vote.
The GOP could pass his plan pretty much as is. While that would undercut complaints about a do-nothing Congress, it would also under-cut claims by Republicans that Obama isn’t a good leader. Right now the GOP blocks everything Obama wants in the House, and then uses that to show that Obama can’t get anything done. That’s a good gig — all they have to do is refuse to cooperate and he looks weak. Obama has called them on that. Yet passing his plan would also divide the GOP because either it would add to the deficit, or they’d have to accept closing tax loopholes. Even if Boehner wants to do that, his party will not follow (he’s actually the weaker leader).
The GOP could decide to pass the plan, not include revenue increases, and make spending cuts elsewhere. That would appeal to the tea party base, but force them to defend wanting to cut programs that might hurt in the coming election. Moreover, such proposals would probably not get past the Senate and would take time to develop. That would play into the image of a ‘do nothing Congress’ in the hands of extreme elements of the GOP.
Worse news for Republicans: the President plans to double down by offering a major deficit reduction plan. This will undercut the argument that he wants to simply tax and spend, and again challenge them to do something other than just play politics. No doubt this will also include tax increases on the wealthy, but those are not unpopular with the general public. I know a myriad of average and even active Republicans who are open to some tax increases to share the burden of paying back the debt. Again, the Republican party appears to be stymied by extreme elements in their own party.
Obama goes into the fall with a new deficit reduction plan, a new jobs plan, a firey attitude, and increased public dismay about the Republican House and the tea party movement in general. While Obama’s approval rating has been down at about 43%, at least 15% of those are Democrats angry that he’s veered right. If he wins back his base — which started to happen already with his speech last night — he’s still in good position even with his worst poll numbers of his first term.
While Republicans were right that this was in part a campaign speech, it also was a speech about the number one issue facing Americans and it is 14 months until the election. Obama is framing the campaign to be about politicians in Washington acting responsible and not with partisan blinders. He is positioning the GOP and the tea party as the villains, or at least as not being responsible and reasonable. People may not love Obama in 2012 like they did in 2008 but they’ll find him a safer bet.
Even worse news for the GOP: the House may well be in play. If the Republicans don’t rally around a reasonable candidate and Congress appears unable to act, tea party types that rode the anger of 2010 to victory will find that independents are disappointed by their desire to play politics rather than solve problems, and shift back.
I believe the bold and risky act of calling Congress back for a joint session will mark the point where Obama’s Presidency turned around and took on new vibrancy. He’s now setting the terms of the argument, not the GOP. He’s using the bully pulpit not just to plead for civility but to push for change. He let the GOP paint themselves into a corner, and now he has the upper hand.