Republicans are experiencing a serious problem as they attempt to stand up to President Obama’s pressure to give in and raise taxes again in order to avert the sequester budget cuts. In spite of the fact that the idea for the scheme originated in the White House and that it is the president’s intransigence in insisting on more taxes rather than a spending solution, the public isn’t buying the GOP’s argument. Two new polls show not only that the president’s job approval rating is at its highest mark since his 2009 honeymoon, but that more people blame Republicans for the sequester and the damage it will do to the economy and national defense than blame Obama.
Democrats claim this is because they have the better argument when they put forward their so-called “balanced approach” to the deficit that calls, at least in theory, for both cuts and increased revenue. But though there may be some truth to this, when one looks deeper into the numbers it’s not clear this assertion stands up to scrutiny. As was the case last year when the country’s weak economy and the administration’s meager accomplishments seemed to guarantee the president’s defeat, Republicans are discovering anew that a situation that might sink another president is not hurting the incumbent’s public standing or giving them any leverage to resist his demands. The rules are just different for Barack Obama–and the sooner the GOP comes to grips with this reality, the better off they’ll be.
Polls from Bloomberg, USA Today/Pew Research and even Rasmussen all show the president with positive job approval ratings. Even more to the point, both Bloomberg and Pew have survey results that seem to back up the idea that the administration’s “balanced” formula is better than one that concentrates solely on cutting spending. Those numbers have led the president to believe in the efficacy of a public campaign of demagoguery aimed at portraying Republicans as the party of the rich defending millionaires’ private jet deductions while seeking to cut aid to the poor.
But the same polls also show a majority don’t approve of the way Obama is handling the budget or the deficit. In a country in which those problems are viewed as the nation’s priority, Obama’s personal poll numbers ought to be lower. And even where the majority back both tax increases and spending cuts, most believe the emphasis should be on the latter rather than the former–which also ought to lead to more opposition to the president’s stands.
There is little doubt that most also understand that if Washington grabs more “revenue,” the result will be a bigger government, not a smaller deficit, as Jonathan Cohn admits today in the New Republic. Though Obama’s laundry list of liberal spending projects in his State of the Union address are all relatively popular, the national appetite for more government is still limited.
That ought to mean that Republicans should be on firm ground when they push back against the White House’s over-the-top dog-and-pony shows in which the president highlights the suffering that will be caused by Republicans. The notion that Republicans are being any more ideological in their stands than he is on these issues doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. His histrionic threats to shut down vital services to spite the GOP are also easily lampooned. And yet Obama remains popular and capable of inflicting real damage on his opponents in the debate on these issues.
The answer to the Republican Party’s problem revolves around the same factor that they failed to grasp in 2012: the president’s unique appeal and popularity. After more than four years of facing off against him, Republicans should understand by now that the laws of political gravity do not apply to Obama.
That doesn’t mean they must, as some faint-hearted Republicans think, surrender without a fight. There is nothing wrong with the conservative principles they uphold, and House Republicans can drive a hard bargain on the deficit that demands entitlement reform if they have the guts to stick to their guns.
Obama’s status as the nation’s first African-American president and the consequent kid-glove treatment he gets from the press make it difficult, if not impossible, to hold him accountable for his hypocrisy or his failures. As I wrote earlier in the week, the White House’s innovative strategies for manipulating the media do not fully explain his ability to evade the normal tough scrutiny that any president gets. Nor does the liberal bias of the mainstream media, though that, too, is a contributing factor.
Obama’s identity as the man who makes Americans feel good about their country renders all other factors irrelevant. This is something that conservatives struggle to understand primarily because they are immune to the president’s personal charm and speaking ability. But it is a fact they must accept if they don’t want to spend the next four years banging their heads against a wall. That’s why the GOP must stop focusing so much on trying to attack a president who is impervious to criticism and concentrate on the sort of big ideas about growth that made them the party of ideas in the ’80s and ’90s.
In the long run, Democrats are going to learn that without Obama fronting for them, their attempt to reboot the New Deal/Great Society coalition built on more and bigger government will fail. The notion that they can dominate the coming decade of American politics by spending and taxing more is a myth that will lead to future defeats at the hands of articulate conservatives who can run on a platform of reforming the government.
Until then, the GOP is stuck with the role of Obama’s punching dummy. So long as Barack Obama is in the White House, the struggle between Democrats and Republicans will always be an unequal one.