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Obama’s Pivot to the Deficit Was a Total Political Failure

Over at The New Republic, Noam Scheiber has a pretty decent account of how the Obama administration made its pivot to deficit reduction after the 2010 election and messed up the debt ceiling issue. From Scheiber:

BY JANUARY 2011, two months after Democrats suffered a rout in the congressional midterm elections, the West Wing again faced a critical choice between engaging with Republicans and playing partisan hardball. Should they tackle the trillion-dollar deficit, co-opting the anti-government zeal that Republicans had ridden to power? Or should they try to lower the stubbornly high unemployment rate, which had exceeded 9 percent for 20 straight months?

The president’s team quickly concluded that the deficit was the higher priority. Bill Daley, a former Commerce secretary and bank executive who had recently taken over as chief of staff, considered the administration so out of touch on the issue of government spending that large cuts could only bring political benefits. David Plouffe, who had replaced Axelrod as the president’s top political counselor, thought Obama needed to establish himself as a budget-cutter to regain credibility with voters. “Plouffe specifically said, ‘We’re going to need a period of ugliness’—he meant with the left—‘so that people in the center understand that we’re not wasting their tax dollars,” recalls a former administration official who observed the discussions. (The White House says Plouffe believed these efforts would help the administration protect core investments in technology, infrastructure, and education.)

It is really hard to understand what incredible political malpractice this pivot was.

To begin with, even if this pivot to the deficit did work as planned and Obama managed to get some big package to reduce the deficit, it would not have politically helped him. During a massive economic downturn, the only thing people care about is the economy. Waving a CBO report about a deficit package would do nothing to get people to vote for you if unemployment is going up. People care about jobs right now. Obama’s numbers are only improving because the economy indicators are improving.

More importantly Obama’s almost year long pivot to the deficit gained him zero support from the American people on that issue. According to Gallup, in November 2011 Obama’s job approval rating on the deficit was 32 percent approve to 64 percent disapprove, today it is 32 percent approve to 63 disapprove. Obama’s worst rating on the issue came in mid-August when it dropped to only 24 percent approve to 71 disapprove. This was right after spending months focusing on the deficit and agreeing to a deal to cut $2.1 trillion.

Obama’s pivot to the deficit only served to worsen his polling numbers on the issue of deficit. Now that he has stopped talking about the deficit, his polling on it has improved slightly. It is hard to make a political mistake worse than that.

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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at