No Good Options for Obama
Not long ago, the conventional wisdom in official Washington held that the so-called sequester spending cuts would be a disaster for the Republican Party. They were expected to rise up in vehement protest once the “cuts” went into effect.
Instead, nobody outside of Washington noticed.
Today, the conventional wisdom suggests that the so-called government shutdown is a big time loser for the GOP. But, once again, few Americans other than federal workers have really noticed any difference.
That’s a big problem for the president. Nothing can be more frightening to liberal politicians than proving how little impact many federal programs have on the day-to-day lives of individual Americans. If nobody notices when they’re missing, it’s hard to argue against trimming the size of government.
So, the president is stuck with an impossible dilemma. If he tries to make the shutdown as painless as possible for the public, he loses all political leverage. If he tries to make people feel his pain, he looks like a bully. If he makes a deal with Republicans, his political base will be demoralized heading into the midterm election. If he doesn’t, and the standoff continues, calls for more permanent spending cuts will grow.
The choices so far have been relatively easy. While there have been bad headlines about the National Park Service blocking veterans from war memorials and other tourist attractions, those stories haven’t become a dominant narrative mainly because of their small scale.
So the president and his administration are threatening to bring out the big guns. There have been hints that Social Security benefits might not be paid in full. That would certainly get the public’s attention. But is the president really ready to tell people that there is no trust fund and that the government’s been lying about it for seven decades?
Like his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama’s second-term problems can be traced directly to decisions made early in his first term.
Politically, his root problem came when he passed a bloated stimulus package in early 2009 with not a single Republican vote in the House. That shutout stunned official Washington and the display of backbone surprised voters. After showing the Republicans in Congress were willing to make a stand, the GOP was on track for an historic victory in the 2010 midterm elections.
Substantively, though, it was the first-term decision to ram through a partisan health care law that is causing the president the most pain today. That leaves the president with another impossible choice. He could delay the program a year to get past the 2014 elections. But that, too, would run the risk of demoralizing his base. Additionally, it might become the first of many delays that would effectively end any hope of ultimately implementing the law.
No matter how you look at it, the president’s in a tough spot. Given the bumbling tactical mistakes of Congressional Republicans, how did the president end up in this situation?
The central reason is that the American people aren’t interested in buying what he wants to sell. In the iPad era, people’s lives are decentralizing and services are becoming more customized. Community solutions are being found closer to home. Giving more power to a-one-size-fits-all federal government is out of synch with that reality.