Pundits across the political spectrum agree: President Barack Obama has committed a series of strategic blunders during debt-ceiling negotiations that have hurt his credibility on the issue, they say, leaving him out in the cold as Congress cuts a deal.
On Monday, Obama took to the airwaves during prime time once again to try to position himself as the voice of moderation on the issue.
“Either way, I have told leaders of both parties that they must come up with a fair compromise in the next few days that can pass both houses of Congress — a compromise I can sign,” Obama said.
But despite the centrist focus that the president is counting on to help him win back disaffected independent voters, he appears to be taking a serious drubbing in the polls. The Gallup weekly average shows his approval rating slipping to 43 percent, tying the lowest weekly number of his presidency.
Even worse numbers arrived for the administration Tuesday, courtesy of a new ABC News/Washington Post poll that suggests even the president’s base is jumping ship. The percentage of Americans angry about the economy has jumped from 44 percent to 60 percent.
Among liberal Democrats, support for Obama’s job-creation efforts has crashed from 53 percent to 31 percent. Almost 60 percent of voters now disapprove of Obama’s overall management of the economy, according to that poll.
“More than a third of Americans now believe that President Obama’s policies are hurting the economy, and confidence in his ability to create jobs is sharply eroding among his base,” reports the Post.
How much the debt-ceiling talks have contributed to the deterioration of the president’s standing with voters is an open question. But New York Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin reports that analysts are turning a deaf ear to the administration’s drumbeat warnings of an impending financial doomsday.
“They have lost all credibility,” Neil M. Barofsky, former inspector-general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, told Sorkin. “It’s so typical of the way Treasury and the Fed treat everything — it is always to warn that Armageddon is coming.”
It now appears that Obama is out of options, his only choice being whether to sign whatever debt-ceiling deal Congress sends him, or risk shutting down the government.
“The administration may have made a strategic mistake in warning too soon that the market would react negatively,” Sorkin writes in Tuesday’s Times. “It ultimately undercuts the government’s negotiating position because the doomsday scenario has not played out, even though the deadline is fast approaching.”
Pundits from the left and the right are criticizing the president for continuing to call Monday night for a “balanced approach” involving both revenue increases and spending cuts. Neither of the two plans under consideration — the “cut, cap, and balance” plan passed in the House and the plan that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proposed in the Senate — has any provision to increase taxes.
“It was a speech entirely divorced from reality,” wrote conservative Washington Post writer Jennifer Rubin. “The Senate Democrats can’t pass tax hikes. The grand bargain can’t get through the Congress with jumbo tax hikes. It is he who rejected a deal that had the agreement of House and Senate leaders. You have to wonder why he set the bar so high.
“He’ll face the flood of ‘President Capitulates!’ headlines when it doesn’t come about,” she continued. “But the answer lies in the sole and consuming passion of this White House: reelection. Hence, the class warfare and the excuse-mongering.”
The president Monday objected that “nothing is asked of those at the top of the income scales.” But syndicated columnist Patrick J. Buchanan, who served as senior adviser to three presidents and ran for the office himself on three occasions, took the president to task for still talking about tax revenues when none is being considered.
“That is yesterday! There aren’t going to be any tax increases,” Buchanan said Tuesday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
“The president has been benched, basically,” Buchanan said. “He’s out of the process except as the final individual who’s either going to veto us into default or not. You’re going to get an increase in the debt ceiling. I thought [House Speaker John] Boehner was far more realistic, far more grounded in reality.”
Even Newsweek Editor in Chief Tina Brown remarked that Obama “did seem kind of retro in the sense the whole tax situation was off the table anyway, so why was he saying that again?”
Among the strategic miscalculations that Obama’s critics on both the left and right now say he made:
- He transparently painted doomsday scenarios to try to pressure Congress into making a deal he liked. His suggestion that Social Security checks might not go out, for example, never appeared probable under any scenario. Obama warned again Monday of dire repercussions, despite the collective shrug Wall Street has given the impasse so far. “We would risk sparking a deep economic crisis, this one caused almost entirely by Washington,” he said.
- Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s Aug. 2 deadline for normal government funding to cut off was never verifiable. Sorkin reports that “the market seems to believe it was a false deadline.” PIMCO chief Mohamed El-Erian has declared, “The Aug. 2 deadline is not as hard as indicated by Secretary Geithner.”
- The president repeatedly portrayed House Republicans as intransigent. But the White House reportedly agreed with Speaker Boehner to a deal including $800 billion in new tax revenues, then subsequently upped the ante and demanded $400 billion more. “The White House negotiating process was inadequate,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote Tuesday. “Neither the president nor the House speaker ever wrote down and released their negotiating positions. Everything was mysterious, shifting and slippery.”
- The president’s histrionic speech on Friday, in which he portrayed himself as being “left at the altar” by Republicans, appears to have backfired. “Obama never should have gone in front of the cameras just minutes after the talks faltered Friday evening,” writes Brooks. “His appearance was suffused with that ‘I’m the only mature person in Washington’ condescension that drives everybody else crazy.” After those remarks, Brooks said, Democrats and Republicans decided to take over and work around rather than through Obama, and began negotiating with each other directly.
- Throughout the budget and debt-ceiling crisis, Obama appeared to approach the issues more as a politician trying to protect his maneuvering room, rather than as a leader presenting a plan in a bid to persuade others to come on board. This ultimately left the resolution of the crisis up to Congress, while Obama stood on the sidelines and lectured both sides on what they should do.
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