The president seems likely to win the battle but lose the argument — and the war. The battle is the stimulus bill which passed the Senate on Tuesday and will clear the conference committee this week. But the argument concerns the best way to revive the economy. The war is the effort to redraw the political map, creating a permanent Democratic majority.
Fresh evidence suggests it is the Republicans who are making headway on the argument as to whether a pork-laden stimulus bill is the best means of beating back the recession. The Pew poll reports:
Support for President Barack Obama’s proposed $800 billion stimulus package fell in the past month as Americans took a more polarized stance toward the plan, according to a new Pew Research Center poll. Fifty-one percent of 1,303 adults polled from Feb. 4-8 said they thought the stimulus was a good idea, compared with 57 percent in early January. … While Republican opponents of the measure may not have a majority of Americans on their side, the poll showed that the GOP is winning one of its central arguments against the White House: the idea that tax cuts provide better stimulus than spending. Forty-eight percent of all respondents said tax cuts for individuals and businesses would be more effective than federal spending on programs and infrastructure compared to 39 percent who said spending would be more effective.
Zogby’s results were even more definitive:
Amidst all the rhetoric surrounding President Barack Obama’s first signature piece of legislation, a massive $800 billion economic “stimulus” bill, one thing is clear: a majority of Americans reject the President’s handiwork. A just-released ATI-News/Zogby International poll shows that clear majorities of Republicans and Independents are against it. … Overall, 53 percent of Americans agree that the Obama stimulus bill will actually hinder economic recovery; while only 31 percent disagree (16 percent are not sure). Fifty-six percent of Independent voters also agree, while only 27 percent disagree (17 percent are not sure). A staggering 88 percent of Republicans agree and just 6 percent disagree (another 6 percent are not sure). … Fifty-seven percent of Independent voters agree that Obama’s stimulus package spends too much and does little to stimulate the economy; while just 31 percent of Independents disagree (12 percent are not sure). Eighty-nine percent of Republicans also agree, while only 5 percent disagree (6 percent are not sure).
The most definitive evidence that Americans are resistant to the president’s effort to pump up spending and expand the size of government comes from Obama’s own campaign book. He certainly didn’t run on the promise to embark on a massive spending spree. To the contrary, he pledged to go line by line through the federal budget. (We’re pretty certain he meant to subtract, not add, as he went along.) If anything, the “mandate” was to restrict the size of government.
As for the war, the effort to establish a new Democratic majority, Obama seems to have thrown that endeavor overboard in the rush to get through his stimulus plan and placate the Democratic Congress. If the Democrats were going to occupy the center of the political spectrum and pull in all but the extreme rightwing of the GOP, you would expect not only a far different bill (one which mirrors the public’s aversion to the spend-a-thon) but rhetoric which more closely tracked the New Politics and optimistic bipartisanship which were the cornerstone of Obama’s campaign.
Instead, the president has turned sharply partisan. He’s now employing the harshest language of his brief political career. He has taken to misrepresenting the Republicans’ position, as even the AP noted in his press conference Monday night: “At least three times he suggested that some unspecified number of his Republican critics want to ‘do nothing’ about the economic crisis. GOP leaders consistently have said they want the government to act, but they think Obama’s plan is too heavy on spending and too light on tax cuts.”
Obama has also adopted the pretense that the Republicans lack well-grounded substantive objections to bill. They are, he says, merely peddling “failed theories.” (That would presumably include Martin Feldstein, the Harvard economist who is on the president’s advisory board and labeled the stimulus plan a “$800B mistake.”) We are, many pundits have noted, back in “campaign mode,” not presidential governing mode.
Gone is the sort of inclusive, big-tent language or respectful attitude toward his foes which attracted many moderates and even Republicans to his campaign. Entirely absent is any effort to negotiate on the real substance of the bill, for example to include tax rate cuts which might draw in substantial Republican support or utilize defense spending (in lieu of domestic pork) which might allay concerns that the stimulus is nothing more than a Trojan Horse for the liberal welfare state’s expansion. Instead, we have a mix of Jimmy Carter’s peevishness and Bill Clinton’s slipperiness. This is not the stuff of which broad-based coalitions are formed.
Moreover, he is perfecting the art of scare-mongering. As Fred Barnes points out, bipartisanship has been replaced by fear as the favored technique:
But if you only have three Republicans, it is not a bipartisan bill by any stretch of the imagination.
I mean, when Democrats claimed that when George W. Bush got ten Republicans(ph) to vote for his tax cuts back in 2001, they all said only ten Democrats, that’s not bipartisan. This isn’t either.
The strategy that Obama, the president, and his aides are using is one called a “panic strategy,” in other words to say things are so terrible, if we don’t pass this immediately, including a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with stimulating the economy or even ameliorating some of the pain of the recession, if we don’t get it passed, as the president said today, he said it will be a “darkening disaster.”
This is all a far cry from the moderate, post-partisan candidate who won in November. Less than a month into his presidency Obama has chosen to govern along strictly partisan lines and employ rhetoric as divisive as any we heard in the Bush years. He will, because he has majorities in both houses of Congress, get his stimulus bill. But a price has been paid, and not just the trillion dollars for the stimulus bill. He has, far earlier than anyone imagined, sacrificed the chance to deprive the congressional Republicans of defensible political ground and to sweep their voters into a centrist bloc.
That was what many Republicans feared might happen — that Obama would create a new governing coalition which would all but make them irrelevant. But they are resting easier these nights, knowing that Obama has turned out to be pretty much like every other liberal pol.