President Obama Weighs Harry Truman Strategy for 2012 Reelection Campaign

With the supercommittee in tatters, the president’s hands-off approach suddenly looks savvy.

Roger L. Wollenberg, Pool / Landov

The supercommittee was always a contrived solution to a contrived crisis, and President Obama was smart politically to stay away from it.

The current morass is not like August, Obama pointed out, when a congressional impasse took the country to the brink of default. Congress has a year to shape the cuts that will otherwise kick in automatically, and polls suggest that voters are receptive to the president’s argument that Republicans are standing in the way of policies that could help jump-start the economy and create jobs.

Much of Obama’s success will depend on his ability to frame the election-year debate in a way that keeps the moral high ground as he punches away at the “do-nothing” Congress. Harry Truman saved his presidency in 1948 by running against a Republican Congress with as much fervor as he did his GOP opponent. Truman said if you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat, a sentiment Obama is attempting to apply to today’s Congress.

With Republicans unilaterally blocking his much-touted jobs package, Obama is looking for chinks in the GOP armor. Will the party of tax cuts refuse to extend a payroll tax cut for working families and an extension of unemployment benefits in the worst economy the nation has seen in decades? Watch Senate leader Mitch McConnell, says Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. “They’re not going to shift unless and until Mitch McConnell decides it’s in their political interest to do so,” he says.

McConnell has openly proclaimed that his No. 1 priority is to defeat Obama, and he is the architect of the GOP’s just-say-no strategy. A savvy insider, he also knows when it’s time to shift gears. It was McConnell, working through Vice President Joe Biden, who finally called a halt to last summer’s debt-ceiling debacle when he conceded publicly the bickering was damaging the Republican brand.

If McConnell concludes that, in an election year focused on the wealth gap, the GOP’s stance on taxes could backfire and cost Republicans their chance to control the Senate, or threaten their majority in the House, then Obama might have a negotiating partner. “The best way to reach a deal for Obama is to pull out the partisan cudgel and slam them between the eyes repeatedly,” says Ornstein. “They’ll only come to the table if their political brand is damaged. They’re not coming for the good of the country.”

Republicans want voters to believe that the supercommittee failed because Obama didn’t show leadership. No one in the White House will admit to a conscious decision to let the supercommittee combust on its own, but that was the practical result. Obama did inject a plan of his own into the deliberations with a 65-page roadmap that the White House released right after Labor Day. It incorporated elements of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, which Obama had created but then largely ignored.

At a White House briefing this week, a reporter asked press secretary Jay Carney if the president had any regrets about not taking Simpson-Bowles to the country, since it now appears it was “his best shot” at getting a deficit-reduction plan through Congress. That is a widely held view, and Carney sought to explain how a plan so heralded on the editorial pages would likely fail on Capitol Hill. The bipartisan commission called for twice the revenue increases that Republicans have been willing to consider along with deeper defense cuts than the GOP supports, making it a nonstarter in Congress. “Wasn’t there less acrimony in Washington at that time?” the reporter pressed.

“Do you really think so?” Carney replied incredulously. Reporters laughed as Carney added, “Well, I suppose everybody’s memories are a little gauzy about golden eras that existed in the past.”

Members of Congress from both parties reportedly counseled Obama to stay out of the supercommittee deliberations because he would only inflame passions, and anything seen as an Obama win would be destined to fail. The White House confirms that its economic team was in touch with the supercommittee as the negotiations were underway, but there was never any heavy lifting. The plan put forward by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, while it challenged some antitax orthodoxy, offered only $300 billion in new revenue over a decade in exchange for making the Bush tax cuts for the top earners permanent and lowering the top rate to 28 percent—which the Democrats quickly assessed as a “windfall for the rich.”

There is both political opportunity and peril for Obama in the post-supercommittee landscape. Polls show that the public and particularly independents are more likely to blame the Republicans for the paralysis in Washington, and it’s critical for Obama that he keep that judgment in his favor. “It’s already a Republican line that the president not only expected failure but was rooting for failure all along,” says Bill Galston, a former Bill Clinton adviser now at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. “If he drops the Full Truman, he could add credibility to the charge he wanted the issue more than the agreement.”

With faith in government at an all-time low, and the Senate map favoring Republican control, McConnell may calculate that he doesn’t have to make any adjustments. For Obama, even if he holds the high moral ground, that may not be enough in a cage match between two parties and a philosophical clash that will decide the next election.