Jonathan Chait

Obama's New Message Takes Shape

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A week ago, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was divided over its strategy between advisers who wanted to emphasize accomplishments and those who wanted to emphasize pragmatic accomplishments and those who wanted to confront Congressional Republicans:

Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, David Plouffe, and his chief of staff, William M. Daley, want him to maintain a pragmatic strategy of appealing to independent voters by advocating ideas that can pass Congress, even if they may not have much economic impact. These include free trade agreements and improved patent protections for inventors.

But others, including Gene Sperling, Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser, say public anger over the debt ceiling debate has weakened Republicans and created an opening for bigger ideas like tax incentives for businesses that hire more workers, according to Congressional Democrats who share that view. Democrats are also pushing the White House to help homeowners facing foreclosure.

Even if the ideas cannot pass Congress, they say, the president would gain a campaign issue by pushing for them.

The Plouffe/Daley argument was always incredibly strange. The notion that Republicans might cooperate in passing legislation that would serve as the thematic centerpiece of Obama's reelection campaign seemed to deliberately ignore every piece of information from the last two and a half years. Even if Republicans somehow could be persuaded to cooperate with Obama's reelection strategy, it's wildly naive to think Obama could run on any accomplishments in such an awful economic environment. Whatever it is he could say he worked together with Republicans to pass, the reply would be, it didn't work.

The only plausible reelection strategy has to revolve not around taking credit but of assigning blame. That is a tricky thing to do when voters abhor partisanship. What we've seen over the last week is Obama's answer. His theme is, I'm the reasonable man, and those other guys won't compromise. Here's David Axelrod hitting the partisan anti-partisanship theme: 

 

David Axelrod said Sunday that when President Barack Obama unveils his new jobs plan in September, “There’s nothing in there that reasonable people shouldn’t be able to agree on.”...

Not surprisingly, Axelrod, talking to Jake Tapper on “This Week,” also hammered home recent points about the motives of the president’s opposition among Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates.

“When people don’t support plans that have in the past garnered bipartisan support, when people are willing to walk the country to the brink of default, when people, instead of saying where there’s a will, there’s a way, [say] it’s my way or the highway, you have to assume that politics is at play,” he said.

Axelrod said the middle class is being held hostage.

“It is unthinkable to me that the Republican Party would say we can’t touch we can’t touch tax cuts for the wealthy, we can’t touch special interest corporate tax loopholes because that will hinder hinder the economy, but we’ll allow a $1,000 tax increase on the average American come January. How could that be? The only explanation for it is politics,” he said.

And here's Obama hitting the same theme in his Saturday message:

The key thing to keep in mind about this strategy is that it doesn't really matter what Obama's plan would accomplish economically, because the plan is never going to pass. The point is to highlight popular proposals, especially middle-class tax cuts, that Republicans are blocking, and in so doing to assign them blame for economic conditions.

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