Old Dominion Tory
The Obama Presidency has ended. There were indications that it was hastening to its conclusion late last year. The November election results were, of course, the most apparent indication. All the talk of the “Comeback Kid” was mere wishful thinking; with the Democrats’ strong majorities in the House and the Senate, passage of the repeal of “Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell,” for example, was a foregone conclusion. Presidential bravado only briefly masked the fact that the exodus of senior staff from the White House continued apace. While the span of a political appointee’s service usually is between eighteen and twenty-four months, senior White House personnel, who often have something of a personal tie to a President, tend to stay through the first term at least.
With the presentation of Barack Obama’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2012, however, he made it clear that, apart from the inescapable demands of national security and foreign policy, his Administration has given up governing. The Second Obama Campaign has begun.
As many editorialists and commentators have observed, the timidity of the President’s budget indicates that the President and his campaign staff (for that is the true status of the White House staff) are trying to use the coming budget battle to gain political advantage. Absent any real leadership on the issue on the President’s part and goaded by an energetic freshman class, the Administration hopes, the Congressional Republicans will dash into the fray with all sorts of unpopular spending "cuts" and—dream of dreams—ideas about reforming the major entitlements of Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. As soon as that happens, the Obama White House will follow the script of the Clinton White House. They will accuse the Republicans as being cold and heartless and cast their budget proposals as direct assaults on the poor, the elderly, and, yes, the children as well as gravely damaging to the economic recovery. As in the 1990s, the GOP will be on the back foot, and the Democrat in the White House will sail on to an easy reelection.
For this plan to succeed, however, all of the players must adhere to their assigned roles, especially the press and the public. The press must do as they have done in the past, reporting about the misery that will be caused by these "cuts" and commenting approvingly on the President's political shrewdness. The public, too, must do as they did in the past: recoil with horror at the intransigence of Republicans and the cruelty that underpins it and then flock to the President's support.
Indications abound, however, that these players and others may not be willing to adhere to the script. The initial support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was tepid, and the House Democrats who went on the air to root for the President seemed to be going through their talking points unenthusiastically. The Washington Post editorial board was distinctly underwhelmed, and even some commentators on—GULP!—MSNBC criticized the President for a lack of leadership. In recent polls, the ratio of people who disapprove of the President's leadership on the budget to those who approve routinely hovers around three to one.
Just as potentially disruptive to the well-laid plans of the Second Obama Campaign, is the fact that, even if the news media realize where exactly it is their duty lies, we live in a new media environment. While their audiences are smaller in relation to traditional media outlets, cable news, talk radio, websites, and social media can have an outsized effect in countering the narratives and refuting the agendas of traditional media. Finally, polling figures show that controlling public spending and the national debt are high on the public agenda.
There are some who already praising the President for being politically shrewd, for luring the Republicans into a battle from which he will emerge victorious and strengthened. Indications are, however, that the President may have outsmarted himself and, in turn, that the progress of the Second Obama Campaign will be nowhere as smooth as the progress of the first.