During negotiations over raising the debt limit in summer 2011, President Obama got stroppy with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “Don't call my bluff,” he said, according to Cantor. “I’m going to the American people with this.” During this season’s budget fight, the president is not waiting for talks to break down. He’s hitting the road early. On Friday, he will highlight the damage that will be done to the middle class if the country sails over the fiscal cliff on a visit to a manufacturing operation in Hatfield, Penn. (If the Republicans were feeling fun, they’d schedule an event in McCoy.)
The president’s aides say he is working inside the negotiating room and outside of it, and that a president must do both. But according to one who has discussed Obama's second term with him, the president believes he spent too much time in his first term engaged with members of Congress—even members of his own party. In the second term he's going to use his office to generate outside support that puts pressure on Republicans. In this case that means one thing: agreeing to raise tax rates on the wealthy. In the president's view, that's either going to happen through agreement in the room, or after the Jan. 1 deadline has passed and public pressure forces Republicans to cave.
Will the outside game work? It didn't when Obama had that confrontation with Cantor. During the 2011 debt-limit fight, the president's approval ratings dropped to their lowest levels, as he was bogged down in a battle opaque to most people. But a lot has changed since then. Most obviously, Obama has been re-elected. If a deal is not struck, the president will not suffer at the ballot box. Obama’s re-election also indicates a mandate of this specific question of tax rates for the wealthy. Exit polls show 60 percent of voters support the hike. Polls also show that people are primed to blame Republicans if no deal is struck. Forty-five percent surveyed in a new CNN/ORC poll said they would blame congressional Republicans if there is no agreement. Only 34 percent said they would blame President Obama.
There is a theory—argued most effectively by Brandice Canes-Wrone, in Who Leads Whom? —that presidents cannot lead the country so much as shape public opinion. Presidents are effective only when the public is already with them. Last summer the fight was unfocused. Now the lines are clearer. Though the fiscal cliff debate touches all areas of government, the immediate debate is essentially focused on raising or lowering taxes on the wealthy. This president has won battles with Congress when the topic is narrow, as he did over the extension of the payroll tax cut and holding down student loan interest rates.
Republicans don’t like the president taking his case to the public. “We already know the president is a very good campaigner,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “What we don’t know is whether he has the leadership qualities necessary to lead his party to a bipartisan agreement on a big issue likes this.” On the House side, one aide to Republican leadership said Republican members are concerned the president’s public campaigning is an attempt to prepare public opinion for an eventual failure to reach a deal, and thus a possible sign that he’s not really serious about a deal. For the moment, those working on a deal from the House GOP side say the White House is negotiating in good faith (though not with the level of specificity they’d like). If they start to see the White House “slow walk” negotiations, they’ll know that Obama has decided that going over the “cliff” is not that big a deal and the campaign-style trip is an effort to build leverage for the post-Jan. 1, 2013 period.
White House aides insist the president wants to get a deal. He thinks the post-Jan. 1 shock to the economy would be real and that the recovery is too fragile. “Just because everyone in Washington thinks this can be worked out in three weeks if we go over the cliff, no one in the business world or families would think that way,” says a White House official.
Republicans are looking for any number of ways to take the microphone back from the president. Grover Norquist proposes that Republicans push to have the fiscal cliff negotiations televised. “The only way for Republicans to have a chance is to have American people in there, not allow establishment press to explain to you what happened. The president has a better megaphone. Unless you focus on what's happening in the room, the press focuses on those who bend toward the TV cameras, but who aren’t in the room.”
If Obama is trying to take his message to the people, Norquist is trying to take the people to the negotiations. Norquist also wants to have whatever deal is struck posted online for seven days before a vote so that people can have a look at it. If these gambits sound familiar, it’s because young and innocent Barack Obama of the 2008 campaign vowed to have negotiations on television and post bills online for five days. The White House is not likely to go along with either of these ideas and John Boehner might not want to either. As a skilled legislator, Boehner knows that the final deal might include lots of fudging and weasel words that can get votes but that won’t be so easy to explain once Twitter, bloggers, and talk radio get to whack at them for a week. Sometimes, when you take an issue to the public you want it to be a done deal.