Obama's deficit speech: Can he stay angry until next Election Day?

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Sept. 19 2011 8:05 PM

This Time He Really Means It

Obama has been angry before, but he's never been able to stay angry. Will his latest economic plan be any different?

President Obama. Click image to expand.
President Obama announces his deficit-reduction plan

The grand bargain is back—and it's angry. President Obama put forward his long-term, $3.6 trillion deficit-reduction plan Monday, and it is patterned on the agreement he nearly reached last summer with his former golfing buddy John Boehner. But this time there was more punch to the plan. The president called for $1.5 trillion in revenue increases, which is $1.5 trillion more than Republicans want. Obama offered the GOP less on Medicare reductions than he had flirted with last summer, too.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The entire proposal was delivered in a stern and blunt tone. "I believe the American middle class, who've been pressured relentlessly for decades, believe it's time that they were fought for as hard as the lobbyists and some lawmakers have fought to protect special treatment for billionaires and big corporations," Obama said, referring to Republicans.

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After the president's speech to the joint session of Congress two weeks ago, the question among his supporters was whether he would keep up the fight. The answer is yes. Obama threatened Republicans that if they didn't pass his $447 billion jobs program, he would make them pay with voters. In his speech Monday, he made it clear that he was not going to cajole as he had in previous negotiations but try more force this time. He was blunt in his threats, including that he would use the veto if Medicare benefits are changed without serious revenue increases from "the wealthiest Americans." If he can turn up the heat on Republicans so that it drives them to the negotiating table, fine. If not, he has a campaign issue.

The president's argument is based on fairness. He used a variant of fair nine times in his short speech, outpacing his next favorite balance (for those of you keeping score at home). He pitched shared sacrifice: Those who receive government benefits or work for the government would have to do with less, and top earners would have to pitch in more. He called for letting the tax cuts enacted under the Bush administration expire as designed and suggested no millionaire should pay less in taxes than a member of the middle class. "This is not class warfare, this is math," he said. "The money is going to have to come from someplace."

This mix of taxes and spending reductions to stave off the unavoidable negative effects of record deficits has been recommended by almost every bipartisan group that has tried to come up with a solution, including the president's own Simpson-Bowles commission. But the emphasis on taxes, and the smaller-than-expected approach to entitlement reform, were panned by Republican lawmakers. Liberal groups like Moveon.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee were encouraged.

Haven't we heard this kind of talk from the president before? Obama's statement had an edge of irritation and frustration identical to the one he showed that night when the grand bargain broke down in late July.

The president gives these extended brow-furrowing speeches periodically. His supporters get all excited, then he withdraws or makes a deal with Republicans (as he did with the Bush tax cuts and the debt ceiling), and they get deflated again. It has happened so much during his first term that this sequence of events is in danger of replacing the usual cliché for cruel disappointment, that moment when Lucy pulls the football away from Charlie Brown and he winds up flat on his back.

So is it really different this time? One chance that it is: the previous approach didn't work. In the debt ceiling debate, Obama took occasional jabs at Republicans—but mostly he assumed he would appear more reasonable than Republicans. Polls showed that his positions were more popular. Polls also showed that Republicans were the ones people blamed for being obstructionist. Ergo, the president would come out ahead, right? Not so. He won no particular praise after averting a government shutdown in April. After the debt-limit deal was reached, both he and the Republican Congress took a hit. In a recent CBS poll, the congressional Republicans had a 19 percent approval rating. The president's was 43 percent, the lowest of his administration. 

Obama's harder tone makes the 2012 presidential campaign feel all the more like a Mad Lib with just a blank space for the Republican nominee. ("Blank Space" is actually the liberal nickname for Rick Perry.) But this strategy doesn't have to be just about getting the president re-elected . His new argument is a greater commitment to a strategy he's tried before: Up the political pressure on Republicans so that they cave. If the president' s new argument causes people to pressure the Republicans in Congress, that could lead to movement where previous strategies have not.

That's not likely to happen. Pollsters have a crude rule of thumb: If the president doesn't have an approval rating close to 50 percent, he's not likely to get re-elected. Will Obama's new tone affect his approval rating? He has to shore up Democratic voters, but he is also gambling that voters who are up for grabs will be attracted to—and bother to go out and vote upon—the idea that shared sacrifice and fairness should govern federal policy.

The question is whether the president is willing to endure the frantic hours at the end of this game of chicken. The problem has always been that the president can never make good on his threats because he will get blamed for bad outcomes; after all, he's the one who occupies the office where people place their hopes and blame. That's still true. If significant portions of his jobs act don't pass—and the supercommittee fails, raising the likelihood of across-the-board cuts—will he relent or stand firm? This year will end with another familiar game of chicken. The president  hasn't yet threatened to throw his steering wheel out the window, but he's loosening the bolts.

Video: Obama on the Offensive

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