WASHINGTON — Two notions, trickle down and stimulus, crystalize why President Barack Obama has bigger problems than just a 9.1 percent jobless rate. He has been losing the political-economic narrative.
Trickle down was the pejorative phrase attached a generation ago to Republican efforts to cut taxes for the rich, assuming the benefits would flow down to the masses. Today’s party leaders, from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan to the would-be presidential candidates, are proposing precisely that and not getting a lot of pushback.
Stimulus is what most economists and politicians have been advocating as the economy suffered. In his speech to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 8, Obama proposed a $447 billion economic program, without uttering the S word.
More than 400 days before the presidential election, the battle lines were clearly delineated this past week with the Republican debate and the president’s jobs proposal and the partisan reaction that ensued. Both sides concur: It’s about the economy, stupid.
For all the furor over differences between the Republican front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry on Social Security and climate change, the party’s basic economic proposition is clear, regardless of who wins the nomination.
They assume that in bad times the incumbent gets the blame. That’s historically been true unless there are discernible signs of things getting better.
Republicans believe that this is a center-right country, and that most voters now accept their agenda of free markets, lower taxes and pro-growth policies. They contend that the difficulties of recent years underscore those virtues, and say privately that Americans are forgetting that a lot of the problems began under President George W. Bush.
Moreover, Republicans say that Obama, such an effective communicator and storyteller during the last presidential campaign, has fumbled and faltered on the public presentation of his economic policy and message.
The White House communications strategy this year, Republicans say with relish, has ranged from embarrassing to pathetic. They believe that the agenda now is being fought more on their terrain.
For their part, Democrats say they realize that if the election is a referendum on Obama’s record, they lose. Therefore, they hope to make the contest a little about contrasting visions of the future and a lot about the evils of a Republican Party that’s supposedly been captured by its right wing.
Democrats generally seem pleased in the aftermath of Obama’s jobs speech to Congress, even though that venue raises expectations. They like the president’s tough, forceful posture and hope he retains this focus, which he hasn’t always done in the past.
Moreover, they predict Republicans will have little choice but to give the president most of the tax-cut provisions he proposed. It’s hard for a party that worships at the altar of lower taxes to say that their bedrock beliefs don’t apply when it comes to a proposal from Obama.
Although it’s unlikely the president will get many of the other elements in his package, Democrats see some appealing political touchstones for next year: They relish running against Republicans who oppose proposals such as the one preventing a quarter of a million teachers from being laid off, or the one giving a tax incentive for hiring veterans, the “returning heroes tax credit,” as the White House calls it.
The president believes that pushing for more job-creating infrastructure projects also is a political winner.
There’s a recognition that it’s going to take the election in 2012 to resolve the deep partisan divides, but look for Obama to repeatedly stress that the nation can’t wait for more than a year to help the economy. This sets the predicate to reprise Harry Truman’s famous 1948 run against a “do-nothing Congress.”
Team Obama salivates over the prospect of running against Perry after last week’s Republican debate, when the Texas governor called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and expressed skepticism about global warming. This anticipatory glee is reminiscent of the Jimmy Carter White House’s desire 32 years ago to run against Ronald Reagan.
The basic view from the White House is that Obama inherited a horrible economic hand, worsened by a string of bad luck this year: the natural disasters in Japan, the European financial mess, and the consumer confidence-destroying battle over the debt ceiling. There is a realization that while, ironically, the debt-ceiling debate was a victory for the president, it also damaged his standing.
The Obama-ites also think they get unfair raps. The public believes that the 2009 Obama stimulus plan was an abject failure, even though, according to almost every detached analysis, it created or saved millions of jobs.
Many voters also believe the Obama health-care proposal amounts to a massive government takeover. In fact, the administration rejected the notion of a public option for the non-elderly.
What really infuriates the White House from Obama on down is what it views as the “equivalency” that the press makes between Democrats and Republicans on the current deficit debates. That’s a valid point.
Every independent bipartisan group that has examined the long-term debt issue has reached the same conclusion: The problem can only be addressed by cutting the growth of politically sensitive entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare and by raising revenue.
The president and congressional Democratic leaders (grudgingly) are willing to accept significant cuts in entitlement spending, in defiance of the party’s base.
“With an aging population and rising health-care costs,” Obama said of Medicare in his address to Congress, “we are spending too fast to sustain the program.”
By contrast, major Republican congressional leaders and all the presidential candidates have flatly rejected tax increases.
A pattern has emerged: Even when the administration should have the better argument, the Republicans often win the narrative, starting with their initial success in defining Obama as a traditional big-spending liberal.
Sure, these are unusually tough times, yet successful presidents who faced equal or greater challenges ranging from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Reagan still managed to shape the agenda and dominate the discussion.
Unless the 44th president can start emulating those successes, re-election may be an uphill battle.
Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News.