In the realm of political strategy, there are two mindsets on the question of attacking the opponent. One frets excessively about how the opponent will respond and how the media will write it up. The other, more aggressive mindset doesn’t worry too much about those things, on the principle that playing offense is almost always better than playing defense. I raise this with respect to the specific question of whether President Obama is going to make attacks on Republican obstructionism part of his arsenal over the next two months. His advisors seem to think that doing so would make Obama look weak. I emphatically disagree, and I think he’ll be dragged into doing it anyway, as he already was. Let’s review the tape.
On Wednesday night, Bill Clinton ripped into the congressional GOP: “[Obama] also tried to work with Congressional Republicans on health care, debt reduction, and jobs, but that didn’t work out so well. Probably because, as the Senate Republican leader, in a remarkable moment of candor, said two years before the election, their No. 1 priority was not to put America back to work, but to put President Obama out of work. Senator, I hate to break it to you, but we’re going to keep President Obama on the job!” It was then that he delivered that line about the GOP’s message in Tampa: we made the mess, he hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so put us back in.
I was elated to hear that obstructionism had made it to the convention podium, and from its best and most authoritative speaker no less. I hoped this meant that it would become a theme. Let me pause in the chronology to say why. It’s simple. The vast majority of the people blame the president for the sputtering economy. After all, he’s the president. They elected him to fix things, so dammit, fix things. Most people’s political analysis doesn’t go beyond this. They think the president can just ... do stuff.
Sometimes, the president can. It is certainly true that Obama had a little more than a year, from Al Franken’s swearing in in July 2009 (which gave the Democrats the magic 60 Senate seats) until September 2010 (when Congress recessed to hit the campaign trail) when he should have been able to do stuff. He did health care. But he, and they, didn’t do economy. The idea of stimulus had been so soiled by then that they didn’t have the votes even among Democrats—partly, to be sure, their own fault for mishandling the stimulus argument the first time around.
But for most of his term, especially on the economy, the Republicans blocked everything. Most people don’t understand that 41 votes in the Senate equal an effective majority because of their collective power to stop any action in its tracks, and most people never will. But the fact is that those 41, if they link arms and stand firm, have more power than the president. Indeed: That old chestnut “the president proposes, and Congress disposes” was originally appropriated from the age-old apothegm “man proposeth, but God disposeth.” Congress is God. At least on domestic policy. But try to tell an average American that in the age of the imperial presidency.
Back to the chronology. As I said, I expected to hear Biden and Obama pick up on Clinton’s attack. Neither did, at least in any meaningful way. Obama didn’t mention, for example, his 2011 jobs bill. Ezra Klein wrote yesterday that the Obama team appears to have decided “to refrain from reminding voters how bad things are and to resist using the campaign as an opportunity to continue pushing emergency measures that congressional Republicans implacably oppose.”
Well, I disagree, but OK, if that’s your decision, that’s your decision. But then, the day after the convention, after the poor jobs numbers came out, what did Obama talk about in New Hampshire? GOP opposition to his jobs bill! So which strategy is it?
Obama may not want to remind voters how bad things are, but they don’t need reminding. They know. And given that they know, the smart and aggressive thing to do is to call out the people who’ve been blocking attempts at progress. Reality is going to force him to do it anyway.
One of the Democrats’ biggest strategic mistakes of the last two years has been their unwillingness to say plainly and openly that Republicans don’t want to see jobs created as long as Obama is president. Chuck Schumer tried it a couple of summers ago. Other Democrats were just afraid to go there. The White House too. And this was even after Mitch McConnell more or less admitted it in public! It was a classic case of worrying about the how opposition would respond and how the media would cover it instead of just playing offense.
Others say he should just train his sights on Mitt Romney, but I think it’s much stronger to tie them all together. Paul Ryan’s presence on the ticket, and Romney’s endorsement of Ryan’s budget, places these slippery fish in the same malodorous kettle. And finally, there is value in simply being seen as fighting. Imagine if Obama called out Mitch McConnell personally for that infamous comment of his. The base would be in heaven, and voters in the middle would at least see him standing up for himself, not letting himself get kicked around. Yes, it would be incautious. I submit that the time is right for a little incaution.