Barack Obama’s bid to seize the initiative with a second fiscal stimulus is barely a week old and, as the president prepares to make a second announcement on the subject on Monday, already in trouble. As I argued last week, part one of the plan was good and the president’s pitch to a joint session of Congress well received in Washington. The rest of the country was less impressed.
A new CBS poll gives Mr Obama his lowest approval rating (43 per cent) and highest disapproval rating (50 per cent) of this series to date. In other polls he is doing even worse. Last week, soon after Mr Obama’s big speech, a Republican won what Democrats thought was a safe congressional seat in New York.
This alone would have emboldened GOP resistance to further stimulus. Hopes for the American Jobs Act then sank further when White House officials began explaining how they want to pay for it: with higher taxes on the rich. The White House says it will propose a “ Buffett rule” (named for the head of Berkshire Hathaway, who frequently pleads that he and other plutocrats be taxed more heavily) to ensure those making more than $1m a year pay at least the same share of their incomes in tax as middle-income households.
The White House has already said it wants to cover the $450bn cost of the American Jobs Act by limiting tax deductions for the higher-paid. Cutting or eliminating the deductions that riddle the US tax code, for all taxpayers and not just the rich, is a good idea. It should be part of a comprehensive reform – alongside lower marginal rates. In a well-designed system, the Buffett rule would be unnecessary. But the president is not going to offer a comprehensive tax-reform plan. He is only going to call for one.
Meanwhile, as standalone proposals, the president’s tax ideas have no chance – and the White House knows it. Republicans will oppose them unreservedly. Even some Democrats in Congress are against them.
In his speech to Congress, Mr Obama stressed that each part of his plan – payroll tax cuts, extended unemployment benefits, and so on – had previously won bipartisan support. This was not about partisan politics, he said. Then, within days, his officials were explaining that the rich would be asked to pay for it.
One day, Mr Obama is the pragmatic outsider trying to talk sense into Congress. The next, he is the ardent liberal complaining about social injustice and corporate jets. The president keeps cancelling himself out. Nobody is impressed, people stop listening, and he becomes irrelevant.
In the past week, Mr Obama has been attacked not just by disappointed progressives and disappointed centrists, but by party professionals close to the White House. The smell of scandal rises from a loan guarantee for a failed “green energy” venture. Excerpts from a forthcoming book show a White House at war with itself. James Carville, formerly a top Democratic strategist, tells the president to panic. Nothing is working. It seems all of a piece.
History may say that little of this was Mr Obama’s fault. All that matters is that he inherited a crippled economy in 2009. In impossible circumstances, you could argue, Mr Obama did pretty well. I go along with this up to a point, but in one way it is too kind.
Mr Obama was burdened with a collapsing economy, but blessed with weak opponents. The new Republican party, just as liberals say, is a radical movement. The GOP aims to cut public spending deeply, despite demographic pressures pushing the other way. US taxes are low; the Republicans want them lower still. In some ways the modern GOP really does want to roll back the New Deal.
Middle America does not share this vision. Why, then, did Republicans win by a landslide in 2010? Why is Mr Obama’s support still draining away? Why is his re-election next year in doubt?
Progressive analysts have two main theories. One is that the Democratic party was too timid in 2008-10, so its supporters are tuning out, letting dangerous mad Republicans get elected. This first theory implies that many of the party’s supporters are stupid. The second theory, in contrast, is that the rest of the country is stupid: Americans have forgotten how the recession began, cannot see the modern GOP for what it is, and blindly want to punish incumbents.
My own theory is that middle America cares for the progressive vision of bigger government and higher taxes no more than it cares for the GOP vision of the minimal state. The country does not want to be transformed in either direction: it just wants to be mended. Unaligned centrists who voted for Mr Obama in 2008 did not like what they saw in the next two years and said, “Enough.” They also felt that the president had let them down. He promised to be a moderating influence, and wasn’t.
If the Democrats’ theories are correct, it is hard to know what to advise. They must wonder if a nation of idiots is quite ready for the universal franchise. If my theory is correct, Mr Obama should have moved into the space vacated by a radicalising GOP, ditched the partisan talking-points, and cemented the Democrats’ new, broader base of support. This would not have been easy, not just because of the crippled economy, but also because the party’s progressives would have fought him all the way. Nonetheless it was his best bet.
Somebody else might one day take this path. Conceivably, Mr Obama still could – but he may now be throwing away his last chance.
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