Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo raises a good point: The president has successfully shifted the focus of debate in Washington from deficit reduction to job creation. “I think this is a bigger deal than we realize,” Marshall wrote last night. Marshall’s a smart guy, so I hope he’s prescient in this case.
Many progressive critics (yours truly included) have harangued President Obama for embracing the Republican Party’s deficit-reduction frame for both federal policy and national politics. You can’t overstate how successful they’ve been in setting up deficit-reduction as the core challenge the U.S. faces right now—or how consequential that political success has been for policymaking. And it is owing in no small part to the Obama administration’s willingness to play along with the conversation. Starting with the December 2010 deal to extend Bush-era tax cuts and running straight through to this summer’s disastrous debt deal, the president did his best to out-hawk the deficit hawks—presumably in pursuit of independent voters, who rewarded the effort by abandoning him in droves, if polls are to be believed.
The White House’s surrogates have since hit the airwaves saying the president regrets the distraction. And since late summer the president has hit the campaign trail to talk about job creation and economic equity with a fury we haven’t seen since the night before Election Day 2008. (The headline-making protests against corporate greed will hopefully force him to stay on that message.) This changed tone will mean little for policymaking in the immediate future. The president’s jobs bill never stood a chance of passing and everyone knew it. The deficit-reduction super-committee is barreling toward disaster, and the worst-case scenario of deep, across-the-board cuts (just in time for the holidays) is the most likely conclusion. We reep what we sow, and this is the dismal crop the president and the GOP have sown over the past year.
But what Obama’s new insistence on a jobs agenda proves is this: the presidency is, in fact, a powerful bully pulpit. No, he can’t just wave a magic wand and pass bills. No one credible has ever argued that. What he can do is use the substantial power of his office to bully Congress into action, or at least into focusing on the right problem.
The first step in doing so is, as the president has said, taking the discussion to the voters. Every time a president speaks, it’s news. So he controls the news cycle every day, if he so chooses, and if he talks about jobs every day, that’s what we’ll all be talking about. The second step is negotiating from the place of strength that this rhetorical bullying creates. And we will all desperately need that strength when the deficit-reduction process reaches its grim climax this winter. So let’s hope Marshall is onto something when he says we might be at a turning point in Washington.