Good Luck, Mr. President

Can Obama campaign for austerity and re-election at the same time?

President Obama may have raised expectations too high during his presidential campaign. When he talked about hope and change and a new era of politics, some imagined it would all be swift, easy, and relatively painless once he took office. He’s not risking that outcome with his plan to shrink the budget deficit. What he’s promising does not sound fun at all. Next year, he said, he will “engage in a conversation with the American people about the hard choices we’re going to have to make.” Explaining why he had to make a deal with Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts, he said: “What I want to do is to essentially get the American people in a safe place … and then we’re going to have to have a broad-based discussion across the country about our priorities.”

As a rule, if someone promises a painful conversation requiring a safe place, it’s time to run (or get a room, if you’re into that kind of thing). But there is nowhere to run. The current level of deficit spending is unsustainable. The American people know this, and they want the president to do something. Yet they show no interest in supporting the hard choices that are required. This poses two challenges for Obama: Can he really have a conversation about sacrifice in a political system that seems capable of only minting short-term delights? And how does the president convince the country to sign on to so much pain while trying to get re-elected?

Public opinion on the deficit problem is mixed. Some polls show that people care about it. In an AP-CNBC poll last month, 85 percent of those asked believed that the increasing federal debt will harm their children’s and grandchildren’s financial future. Some surveys show less concern.  A recent CBS News poll showed only 4 percent of the public want the new Congress to focus on the deficit in January. But polls are pretty clear in revealing that people are not anxious to have this conversation the president is promising. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows little support for the major options being discussed for addressing the deficit. A recent Bloomberg poll shows similar sentiment. “The American people show no appetite to make the hard choices to balance the budget,” says pollster Peter Hart.

There are ways to encourage people to accept shared sacrifice. The president’s deficit commission tried to scare the paste out of people: Fix the deficit or the economy will collapse. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., went beyond mere economic peril and talked about the decline of American civilization, rotting from within.

President Obama has pointed to these dark clouds, and surely will again. But selling a policy based on gloom and doom is hard to sustain. It didn’t work for him with health care. The president started his pitch arguing that the system had to be reformed to halt the unsustainable growth of health care inflation. It wasn’t the only thing he talked about, but it sent the loudest signal. People took talk of curbing costs to mean they would have to sacrifice something. When the president said certain cost reforms, like those related to end-of-life care would require a “very difficult democratic conversation” (there’s that word again), people got spooked.

Doom and gloom isn’t Obama’s best channel. He’s much better at uplift, which reminds people of what they liked about him in the first place. The president won’t be just selling a deficit reduction plan. He’ll also be making the case for his re-election.

Do people want to hear more change is coming—and unpleasant change at that? After Obama just suffered an election defeat because he tried to change things too much? Obama can’t avoid the conversation, say White House aides. The economic realities of the moment demand hard choices. Republicans are also talking about sacrifice. So at least this will be a competition of ideas, not simply a referendum on the president’s plan.

The uplifting package into which Obama will tuck this tough talk was previewed at the president’s recent speech in North Carolina, which White House aides say is a template for the next year. The message is that if America doesn’t get smart about how it spends money, the country will fall farther back in the global race. In the speech at Forsyth Technical Community College, the president talked about that competition the way Cold War presidents talked about the missile gap. “As it stands right now, the hard truth is this: In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind.” Obama recounted the list of statistics—from college graduation rates to the proportion of science and engineering degrees—that proved his point. Then he made the Cold War link explicit. “Our generation’s Sputnik moment is back. This is our moment.  If the recession has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot go back to an economy that’s driven by too much spending, too much borrowing, running up credit cards, taking out a lot of home equity loans, paper profits that are built on financial speculation. We’ve got to rebuild on a new and stronger foundation for economic growth. We need to do what America has always been known for: building, innovating, educating, making things. We don’t want to be a nation that simply buys and consumes products from other countries. We want to create and sell products all over the world that are stamped with three simple words: “Made in America.”

For a president who is accused by conservatives of not boasting about America, the coming conversation about priorities will be framed around verses of the American song. “He believes in the exceptional quality of the American people and American exceptionalism,” says David Axelrod, “and that exceptionalism is defined by the ability to meet challenges of our times.”

The president can also fit this pitch to appeal to CEOs with whom he is anxious to repair relations. According to Mark Knoller of CBS, at the end of Obama’s remarks to his Export Council last week, the president said this would be the theme of his State of the Union address: “What does it take to make us competitive? We’re not gonna draw a wall around America. We’re out there leading. That’s what we’ve always done. We don’t shy away from competition. We beat the competition. But we don’t do it just by beating our chests, we do it by hard work and a good strategy.”

The debate over the next budget will be epic and familiar. The parties will play their familiar roles. Republicans will try to paint the president as the protector of wasteful social spending. His priorities, they will say, are simply social redistribution. The better he can make the competitiveness case, the better chance he has of breaking out of that box.

The theme sounds potentially stirring. It seems like good packaging for a president trying to sell a tough set of notions. And if anything actually comes of it, we’ll all be very surprised. Even the best rhetoric applied to austerity has to overcome the disinterest in it. Voters show new appetite perhaps because politicians in Washington seem to be nothing but appetite. The tax cut deal that just passed the Senate is going to cost roughly $900 billion and none of it is paid for. Economists say this is smart, given the economy’s fragile state. That rationale doesn’t work as well for the earmarks contained in a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill Congress is trying to pass before everyone goes home for the holidays. Perhaps they will find their safe place there and return to Washington prepared for this new conversation. Expectations are low.

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