For some time, liberals have felt that their messenger-in-chief has been AWOL. In the wake of President Barack Obama's acquiescence to $38 billion in spending cuts, many targeted at vulnerable populations, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote of the president that "arguably, all he has left is the bully pulpit. But he isn't even using that -- or, rather, he's using it to reinforce his enemies' narrative."
Just three days later, the president allayed these fears somewhat when he released his own deficit-reduction plan as a direct counterpoint to the House Republican budget and delivered a powerful speech defending liberal ideals and a positive role for government. Obama called out the Republicans for seeking to end Medicare, slash vital investments in the future, and give new tax breaks to the wealthy. Nonetheless, concerns about the president's message, or lack thereof, predated his spending-cut deal with House Speaker John Boehner and will no doubt re-emerge at different points in the budget battles that lie ahead.
A number of the liberal complaints about Obama's message leadership fail to appreciate the constraints the president faces in the current political environment or the steps he's needed to take before he could attempt to drive the national political debate in a more progressive direction. At the same time, it is clear that the president's above-the-fray posture and emphasis on finding bipartisan solutions will -- in addition to demoralizing his strongest supporters -- prove utterly inadequate as a message strategy for winning the policy battles he confronts. Indeed, it might not even win him re-election. President Obama needs to pivot toward a much stronger message that contrasts Democratic priorities with Republican ones. His bold April 13 budget speech may -- we can hope -- be the first step in transitioning to such a message.
The liberal critique of Obama's message so far begins not with any particular position or argument he embraces but with the notion that he is engaged in the entirely wrong discussion. By addressing government spending and the budget deficit, this argument goes, Obama is fighting on the Republicans' terrain instead of engaging on the issue that voters care about most: jobs and the economy.
But the budget deficit is not Republicans' terrain -- right now, it is the voters' terrain. The public-opinion data on this point, unfortunately, is unambiguous. In last November's exit poll of voters, a 40 percent plurality said that reducing the deficit was their top priority for Congress (another 18 percent chose cutting taxes). In a February poll conducted by my firm, Hart Research, 84 percent of voters felt it was important that Congress pass a plan to significantly reduce the budget deficit, including 65 percent who said it was "very important."
To be sure, voters do still put jobs and the economy ahead of the deficit in a head-to-head contest of their leading concerns. However, such poll questions assume a choice -- reduce the deficit or improve the economy -- which voters do not actually perceive. Instead, the public believes deficit reduction is an important step for growing the economy. Indeed, other polling Hart Research conducted in February showed that by a margin of 50 percent to 40 percent, voters believe that reducing the deficit and cutting government spending is a better way to improve the economy than investing in America's infrastructure, education, renewable energy, and new technology.
Moreover, Obama faces an inconvenient obstacle in trying to change the subject back to the economy: His solution to unemployment, the federal stimulus, is widely considered to have failed. Only one-third of 2010 voters (32 percent) felt the stimulus had helped the economy, while two-thirds felt it had made no difference (31 percent) or had actually hurt (34 percent). Saying Obama should talk about "the economy" elides the huge strategic obstacle posed by the perceived failure of the stimulus.
Politically, the deficit is important to voters, and Obama is actually more serious about reducing it than are Republicans. To deliberately communicate to voters that he cares about it less than Republicans do would be political malpractice. Obama simply cannot allow this to be a debate over whether or not to reduce the deficit. After all, the proposition that America must choose between shrinking the deficit and making substantial public investments is the premise of conservatives' argument.
In the current public-opinion environment, if we liberals weren't periodically left dispirited by the president's rhetoric, Obama wouldn't be doing his job.
There is a final liberal critique of Obama's strategy, however, with which I am in much more sympathy: excessive bipartisanship. While Obama's bipartisanism was an inevitable concession to the new political realities he faced, his persistence in preaching the need for common ground, even as the extreme nature of the GOP's agenda became increasingly clear, understandably stretched the patience of many Democrats. Only the president has a megaphone of sufficient size to make a Democratic critique of Republican ideas audible. The result has been an often one-sided debate, in which Democratic values and policies are viciously attacked while Republican ideas receive no serious scrutiny.
Having signaled to voters that he got the message they sent him in 2010, Obama must pivot and broaden the discussion. Democratic moderates urge the president to seize the political center, which is somewhat akin to telling a baseball team to "score more runs" -- elections are won in the center by definition. But conceding ground and moving to the right is not the only, or best, strategy for capturing the political center. Democrats can also seek to define the GOP as further from the center than the public currently understands. Fortunately, today that simply requires telling the truth. A strong contrast message, with well-targeted attacks on Republican priorities, will allow Democrats to seize the center -- and over time, to redefine where the "center" is.
Taking the fight to Republicans can also bolster the public's perception of the president as a strong leader. In February of 2009, 80 percent of Americans thought Barack Obama was a "strong and decisive leader," but that has fallen to only 53 percent today. Obama has said he aspires to be a transformational president in the mode of Ronald Reagan, but Democrats came to fear Reagan, while no one fears Obama (with the possible exception of liberal Democrats). Obama needs to shatter the Republican conceit that the GOP's agenda is actually popular. That will only happen if he draws a sharp line and proves that more Americans stand on his side of the line.
There are two core elements to a successful contrast message that will take Obama and the Democrats forward. Both were part of his April 13 budget speech, which appeared to signal that the switch from bipartisanship to a clear contrast message has begun.
In his speech, Obama made an eloquent case for the social safety net and the idea that "there are some things we can only do together." This helped move some liberals off the suicide-watch list, but even more important from a public-message perspective was his frank description of the Republicans' budget proposals to cut education, clean energy, Medicare, and Pell grants. In the future, he needs to focus even more on telling the public the specific consequences of the GOP agenda on people's lives -- explaining just how many children and schools will be hurt by education cuts, for instance. Personalizing these budget issues was always a critical part of President Bill Clinton's message when he successfully navigated a similar pivot during the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. While a president's ability to change public attitudes is often exaggerated, he does have a great capacity to tell the truth about his opponents' real agenda.
Most important was Obama's plain speaking about Paul Ryan's plan to "end Medicare as we know it." Democrats have struggled to win the votes of seniors in recent years, and this potentially reopens the door for Democrats. In a recent Gallup poll, only 31 percent of voters (and just 34 percent of Republicans) believed that Medicare needs major changes to control costs.
The president was also shrewd in linking the battle over budget cuts back to the issue of building America's economic future. Voters will evaluate the parties' competing budget priorities by their perceived impact on jobs and the economy. While no one seems to like Obama's "winning the future" formulation, the focus on the future is right. There is considerable downside and no value in trying to re-litigate the stimulus debate. Just 28 percent of voters believe that large cuts in government spending will worsen the job situation. However, voters do agree that specific public investments -- education, infrastructure, energy independence -- are vital for America's long-term economic health.
The single most important element in the president's April 13 speech, and the linchpin of the contrast message Democrats need, was Obama's forthright attack on Republicans' call for new tax breaks for the rich even as the GOP seeks to dismantle Medicare and cut non-entitlement spending back to 1920s levels. In public-opinion terms, this is shooting fish in a barrel. Voters overwhelmingly oppose new tax cuts for the wealthy. Raising taxes on the rich is probably the single most popular solution to the deficit problem. A Gallup poll conducted after the 2011 budget agreement was reached found that 59 percent of Americans favored imposing higher taxes on families with household incomes of $250,000 and above in next year's budget, while 37 percent were opposed.
The importance of including high-end tax cuts in the Democratic message is that they reveal to voters that the Republican budget-cutting agenda is not a sincere effort to solve the budget deficit after all, that another agenda is at work. Republicans are in the strongest position when they can present themselves as cleaning up a fiscal mess ostensibly created by Democrats (this is the formulation employed by many GOP governors as well). Budget cuts are presented as inevitable, a necessity, because "we are broke" and government programs are "unsustainable."
But if programs are being cut or Medicare replaced in order to pay for tax cuts for "millionaires and billionaires," the veil is pierced, and the GOP message collapses. Then voters understand that Republican budget blueprints represent choices, not necessities. Then, the public can see that Republicans are not fearful that Medicare is "unsustainable" but rather, are terrified that it might somehow be sustained and thus require more revenue from business and the wealthy.
This contrast in priorities -- tax cuts for the wealthy versus programs that serve all Americans -- provides Democrats with a much greater political advantage than can be gained just by spotlighting the consequences of budget cutting. Even before Obama's speech, a recent CNN poll highlighted the difference: While just 47 percent of voters felt Republican proposals to cut spending "go too far," fully 68 percent thought these same proposals "unfairly favor some groups more than others."
This sharp-contrast message also has much more appeal to voters than does a more "centrist" bipartisan message. In the same February survey that found voters very concerned with reducing the deficit, Hart Research asked voters to choose between two hypothetical Democratic candidates. By a lopsided 20-point margin, they preferred a candidate who attacked Republican budget cutting and demanded tax fairness over a candidate who focused on deficit reduction and bipartisan cooperation.
Looking beyond the immediate budget battles, the message focused on contrasting the parties' priorities is essential for undermining the appeal of conservative message frames, which have so often proved successful at shifting national debates to the right over the past 30 years. Liberals often attribute that success to conservatives' effective attacks on "big government" and struggle valiantly to defend government from this assault -- which will always be challenging given Americans' ideological predisposition to favor "small government." This fundamentally misunderstands the roots of conservative message success.
The underlying premise that the nation's political debate is about the size of government -- a choice between "limited government" and a more expansive vision of government's role -- is itself part of the Republican message. (And it persists despite the complete absence of evidence that Republicans actually favor smaller government in principle.) The fundamental deception is that this is a debate about the size of government, when it is really about whom the government will serve. Similarly, Republicans much prefer to debate the issue of deficit reduction than the question of who should pay the cost of maintaining our public sector.
Accepting these terms of debate is like conceding that segregationists were motivated by a genuine concern for states' rights rather than defense of racial privilege. Yes, you can make cogent arguments for federal power -- but why play on the other team's field? Much better to penetrate the underlying deception and pose the real question: Which side are you on? The debate over budget priorities can bring that question into stark relief.
In electoral terms, a priorities framework has the advantage of uniting the interests of the middle and lower classes. The crucial subtext of the conservative anti-government framework is a whispered message to the middle class: You have more in common with the wealthy (you are both taxpayers) than with the poor (who consume the government services you pay for). The priorities approach draws a different line across the economic spectrum; it says that middle-class and low-income families are both ill-served by a government that serves only the wealthy and big business. It points the finger of blame at the powerful rather than at the "undeserving poor" and establishes common ground between middle- and lower-income voters.
The president has only begun his pivot. Obama will doubtless continue to frustrate liberals by periodically expressing his faith in bipartisan solutions. And although his rhetoric has shifted, he could still be compelled to accept bad substantive budget deals, perhaps as part of a debt-ceiling extension this summer. But I suspect we can count on Republican extremism to blow up negotiations and save the president from himself if that proves necessary.
Indeed, we must hope that Obama's team is preparing for the likely failure of negotiations on a deficit deal and positioning the president so that Republicans -- not Obama -- own that failure. It will therefore be hard for outsiders to know the president's real strategy and expectations. The rhetoric leading to surrender would basically be the same as that required to set the Republicans up to take the blame if a deal falls through. This summer, liberals will need a good supply of patience, antacid, and hope.
The important thing is that Obama not commit himself to making a deal. His strength hinges on his readiness to walk away from any deal that violates the core commitments he has now made. In the 1996 budget battle, President Clinton also drew a line in defense of Medicare. As the standoff continued, he said, "If we're going to walk away from the fundamental commitments of Medicare, we ought to have an election about that." Soon after, the GOP surrendered. It's a line that President Obama may need to resurrect.