It’s anybody’s guess what a catastrophic shutdown of the federal government would mean for the horse race of partisan politics; if it happens, pollsters and operatives will surely supply guesses hourly. What’s clear, however, is that if the government in fact grinds to a halt, President Obama will get yet another chance to finally deliver on the most promising element of his 2008 campaign: His ability to lead the country in a values-based conversation about the role of government.
Obama has actually had the opportunity to start that kind of conversation for months. He even seemed to be baiting the GOP into it at the year’s outset, with his discretionary spending freeze and nonstop talk about fiscal responsibility. Thus far, however, the president has steadfastly refused to take the opening he’s created. Instead, he has kept the conversation narrowly focused on the process of passing a budget, rather than the deeper, more crucial conversation about what values a budget reflects.
This week, for instance, Obama has skillfully positioned himself as the sole grownup at the negotiating table. After meeting fruitlessly with Republican leaders Wednesday, he held a press conference in which he primarily communicated that he had much more important things to do than hold press conferences. This budget stuff is a no-brainer, he seemed to say–Republicans give a little, Democrats give a little and we all get back to work lowering gas prices and fighting dictators.
"That’s certainly what I’m spending my time worrying about," Obama said, flaunting his frustration. "And I shouldn’t have to oversee a process in which Congress deals with last year’s budget, where we only have six months left, especially when both parties have agreed that we need to make substantial cuts and we’re more or less at the same number."
This grow-up-guys talking point is low-hanging political fruit. After all, the 1995 shutdown went so poorly for Republicans precisely because Newt Gingrich got caricatured as a big baby (literally). House Speaker John Boehner’s memory of Bill Clinton easily tarring Republicans as legislative brats is no doubt one reason he reportedly told his caucus that Democrats are in a position to "win." Boehner would do well to also note the president’s relentless repetition of the fact that this isn’t a game and everybody loses when the government closes its doors.
In any case, having set Republicans up to take the fall, Obama has also spent the past several days hammering home his takeaway point: That it’s long past time for lawmakers to…learn how to compromise. Huh? The president is handed a moment in which the entire nation is focused sharply on the role of government–a defining debate for American politics–and he uses it to talk about the process of legislating?
"We’ll have time to have a long discussion about next year’s budget, as well as the long-term debt and deficit issues," Obama told reporters Wednesday, when asked about the GOP’s bold, unapologetically values-based proposal for 2012. "I’m looking forward to having that conversation," he explained. "But right now we’ve got some business in front of us that needs to be done, and that is making sure that we are cutting spending in a significant way, but we’re doing it with a scalpel instead of a machete."
Moreover, the president has spent weeks affirming the losing terms upon which Republicans want to have that conversation. He’s argued earnestly over the negotiations themselves–what’s the best number for cuts, and what’s the best way to find it–without challenging the deficit hawks’ premise. With each continuing resolution, Obama has helped cement the idea that the government is much too large and spends much too much money.
If that’s true, there’s no talking point smart enough to justify Obama’s presidency. His political fate–and our government’s wellbeing–depends upon articulating why government plays a crucial role in improving Americans’ lives, and doing so in big, values-based language–like the way Obama used to talk about government spending back in 2008.
Take the way he parried John McCain’s spending obsession in the first presidential debate. McCain used the word "spending" dozens of times, while Obama used it only in reference to the military, and then sparingly. Instead, he spoke constantly about why we spend and the choices we make with our budget.
"In order to make the tough decisions, we have to know what our values are and who we’re fighting for and our priorities," Obama explained. "And if we are spending $300 billion on tax cuts for people who don’t need them and weren’t even asking for them, and we are leaving out health care, which is crushing on people all across the country, then I think we have made a bad decision."
He inserted taxes into the deficit conversation even more aggressively in the second debate, again in order to emphasize the values that budget choices reflect. "You know, it’s tough to ask a teacher who’s making $30,000 or $35,000 a year to tighten her belt when people who are making much more than her are living pretty high on the hog," he quipped. "And that’s why I think it’s important for the president to set a tone that says all of us are going to contribute, all of us are going to make sacrifices."
And later, when the debate turned to the cost of entitlement programs: "If we get our tax policies right so that they’re good for the middle class … then we are going to be in a position to deal with Social Security and deal with Medicare."
Obama of 2008 was an unrepentant taxer and spender, he just insisted that we be clear about why we do those things, in order to do them wisely. "I’m going to spend some money on the key issues that we’ve got to work on," he declared proudly in the second debate. "The key is whether or not we’ve got priorities that are working for you," he later spelled out, "as opposed to those who have been dictating the policy in Washington lately, and that’s mostly lobbyists and special interests."
Obama of 2010 would rather make sure everyone knows he feels the Republicans’ deficit pain, too; he just wishes they’d be less partisan about it all.
That obsession with political comity has drawn Obama the wrath of his political base throughout his presidency. His desire to be the compromiser in chief has driven him to take truly radical reforms off the table before negotiations have begun on everything from health care to foreclosures. And it has shaped the narrow deficit conversation he’s embracing now. After all, as even the president has stressed, the Republicans are doing so well on the actual policy part of budgeting that they are now rejecting the victory they originally sought: $73 billion in cuts. Who can blame them? Why stop making new demands if Democrats keep giving in?
On both politics and policy, the president has confused the ends and the means. Yes, voters want politicians to work together to get things done. But mainly we want things to get done, whatever that takes. We want jobs and health care and retirement security. Republicans have grabbed megaphones and screamed that big government kills these things, while Democrats have donned accounting visors and fussed over exactly how much money is too much for them to spend.
If the government closes down–either this week or later, because rest assured this standoff isn’t going away–it will dominate conversations ranging from CNN to church parking lots. Yes, immediate political realities demand the president make sure Republicans get blamed. But leadership–real leadership that can drive meaningful change–means exploiting that moment to elevate the debate over budgeting out of process and into purpose.
Obama must show why, in times of crisis, the federal government is our greatest asset rather than our biggest liability. If he does that, he can reshape this defining debate for years to come. If he does not take on that unavoidable fight, whether he wins or loses re-election may not be terribly relevant to real people. Republicans will have successfully framed government as our enemy and, more importantly, they will have ensured government continues to fail precisely when we need it most.