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Belmont Club

The Throw of the Dice

August 16th, 2011 - 5:20 pm

Marc Ambinder in the Atlantic article describes a train of thought which is either brilliant or complete hogwash.  “Fighting a perception of weakness, Obama puts [the] onus on lawmakers. The White House, burned by failed efforts to work with Republicans and dismayed by a growing perception that President Obama is a weak leader, has made the decision to put more pressure — and blame — on Congress when Obama returns to Washington after his family vacation. ”

The logic behind it is apparently as follows. The President has low poll ratings because he is perceived as weak, not only during the debt-ceiling negotiations but throughout the Arab Spring. Therefore the President must “get tough” by blaming other people. That will his restore his standing and restore unto him the magical powers he had in 2008.

Will it work? At the heart of this calculation is the recognition that he’s lost the middle and is in danger of losing his base to boot. As the Atlantic puts it, he has to show his far Left that the days of being Mr. Nice Guy are over and whatever the middle may think, he deserves their complete loyalty at least.

According to the two senior officials, the plan to arrest that decline is for Obama to no longer be seen as above the fray. While they believe Republicans were both wrong and unfair to claim the president had no plan to bring down the deficit, they know it hurt him. So they will try to show the president as having specific plans and then show him fighting for them. No more will the president be focusing primarily on issues that can attract bipartisan support and appeal to a Republican House. And no longer will he be so willing to let Congress work out the details on its own.

The obvious problem with that approach is that it will require the President to provide more goodies for his base than his shrunken influence can reasonably provide. No longer being “seen as above the fray” means becoming partisan in plain English. But being partisan means being able deliver on his patronage. That means, above all, finding ways to provide jobs and goodies to those who will support him or at least the reasonable expectation thereof. The Chicago Way doesn’t work if there’s no muscle or at least money behind it.

But where’s the money? Where the goodies?

The difficulty is that all the jobs are in Texas. As Political Math points out, despite the qualifications and reservations, employment in Texas is “growing over twice as fast as the second fastest state and three times as fast as the third”. Worse, the reasons for this growth are rooted in fairly long-term circumstances. Government might be able to create an environment in which jobs are created, but it cannot create many jobs by itself. Political Math says (emphasis mine):

One can argue that Perry had very little to do with the job situation in Texas, but such a person should be probably prepare themselves for the consequences of that line of reasoning. If Rick Perry had nothing to do with creating jobs in Texas, than why does Obama have something to do with creating jobs anywhere? And why would someone advocate any sort of “job creating” policies if policies don’t seem to matter in when it comes to the decade long governor of Texas? In short, it seems to me that this line of reasoning, in addition to sounding desperate and partisan, hogties its adherents into a position where they are simultaneously saying that government doesn’t create jobs while arguing for a set of policies where government will create jobs.

The point is that there isn’t any patronage to spread around. The only prospect of that for President Obama was to get Congress to raise the debt ceiling so he could borrow some. But although he can get some that way, it won’t be enough. If that is true, then President Obama can talk up his base, but realistically he can’t give them very much. He can give them promises, but for the kind of people who like partisanship, talk is cheap. They need hard cash.

If he is truly determined not to stand “above the fray” then he can try to punish the Red States by increasing taxes or regulation, but this will not yield much in the way of benefit to his base either. Government can take away, but it cannot make. And in this case, taking away will probably get a whole more people angry than any loyalty its proceeds could buy. It will get him enemies but not much in the way of mazooma to throw around. It certainly can’t be done in time to change things in 2012.

President Obama is running out of time. He has no ready source of free energy to bribe his base back and from where to sally forth and regain the swing voters he needs to win. Falling back on partisanship without the money to support patronage is a doomed strategy. They’ll all just sit around the porch and pass around a dime.

What the “get tough” approach must actually become is simply an increasing stridency. It’s got to become class warfare all the time, every day because it can’t become anything else. It is a sad option, but there is nothing else for the poor President to do.

The interesting question is whether anyone will choose to remain in the center. The obvious attraction to seizing the middle is because the President appears to be ready to cede it.  He’s walking out the door. But if there’s anything a vitriolic campaign does well it is to utterly destroy moderate discourse.  And there will be many conservatives who will see the President’s vitriol and raise it.

Neverthless, Obama’s decision to “get tough” probably increases the probability of internal wrangling within the GOP and the Dems. It will split their membership between those who want to stay moderate and those who say to hell with it. The advantage the GOP enjoys is that they can settle the question of political positioning in the primaries. In the end, they can fit a shoe to their feet.

The problem the Dems face is that they are estopped from challenging Obama’s decision to go Left by virtue of his incumbency. They are stuck with him. They must walk in the Obama shoe no matter how much it pinches. Unless open revolt breaks out among the Dems they are bound up with his decision to “get tough”. Those who fear — probably rightly — that this could destroy the party for years to come have nowhere to go but out. For those who stay there is no alternative but ride it out to the end.

In all likelihood, the President’s decision to “blame Congress” will mean an increasing polarization in politics on which basis he will be utterly dependent. He cannot now win on a rising economy so his last chance is to invoke the struggle 24×7. It would be an ironic political fate for the man who promised to be the great uniter and world Grand Bargainer.  Ultimately people’s fates are bound up with the forces they unleash and not by what they say.

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