As the debt ceiling talks continue, some in the mainstream media are acting as if President Obama’s attempt to pose as the only grown up in Washington is working. For example, Matt Bai writes in the New York Times political blog, the president is getting the upper hand over the Republican leadership in large part because as unpopular as Obama is, the Congress is even less liked. There’s some truth to that assertion but to assume, as Bai does, this means Obama will be able to emulate Bill Clinton’s victory over a previous generation of House Republicans is far fetched.
While no one, especially the GOP leadership, should underestimate the power of the presidency and the ability of any resident of the White House to upstage and wrong foot members of Congress, the differences between that memorable butt-kicking of Newt Gingrich by Clinton and today’s situation far outweigh any similarities.
The biggest difference is the political savvy of the players on both sides of this battle. Barack Obama is no fool but, as we have seen again and again the past two and a half years, he can’t hold a candle to Clinton when it comes to the basic business of politics. Where Clinton’s appeals to the American people’s basic moderation were effortless, the far more doctrinaire Obama is clearly forcing it when he self-consciously plays the guy who can see both sides of the issue.
On the other hand, while John Boehner and Eric Cantor are not exactly the most brilliant politicians of the era, they are light years ahead of the hubristic and petulant Newt Gingrich, whom Clinton beat like a drum. Boehner and Cantor’s innate caution can make them seem less than inspiring at times, but they understand what their party is supposed to stand for and haven’t forgotten who put them into office. Obama is trying hard to box them in, but the idea the president who broke the bank with the stimulus and Obamacare can sell the public on the notion he is a fiscal conservative is more than a stretch.
As even a new Pew Center poll shows, even after several weeks of relentless pounding on the dangers of not raising the debt ceiling on the part of the president and his cheering section in the media, more Americans are still more worried about the consequences of doing so then they are about the prospect of a default.
The Republicans do have to be careful not to come across as obstructionist, but they also understand the electorate is also not the same as it was in prosperous 1996. The GOP core will not forgive them if they raise taxes, but it is Obama who must worry about being blamed next summer for the disastrous economy. As for the unlikely event of something that approaches a default, all would be blamed for the catastrophe, including the man at the head of the government.