In the final days of his hard fought reelection campaign, President Obama hinted that he would tame conservatives in a second term by governing from the outside.
Rather than getting bogged down in the nitty-gritty of negotiations with Republican lawmakers – as he did during the bitter and protracted talks over raising the debt ceiling in 2011—Obama said he would use the bully pulpit and take his case to the people to bring popular pressure to bear on his Republican rivals.
“The most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside,” he said repeatedly. “You can only change Washington from the outside.”
On Wednesday, the president started executing that strategy in preparing for what likely will be another highly contentious and high risk round of negotiations. This time, it will be over addressing the country’s soaring $16 trillion national debt and averting a year-end fiscal cliff of massive automatic tax increases and defense and domestic cuts that could send the fragile economy tumbling back into recession.
In his first press conference in 8 months, Obama claimed a mandate from the voters – even some who voted for Republican nominee Mitt Romney – to push through a comprehensive budget, tax and deficit reduction plan that protects the middle class and forces high-income earners to pay more taxes.
Obama is clearly showing what he believes is a winning hand, and he’s changing the game. He’s calling for $1.6 trillion in additional tax revenue over the coming decade, far more than the Republicans are likely to accept and twice the $800 billion that he and Republican leaders discussed in talks during the summer of 2011. Ahead of a Friday meeting with with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio and other congressional leaders, he is urging House Republicans to approve a Senate-passed bill that would extend the expiring Bush era tax cuts for all Americans except the wealthiest two percent.
Even before the dust settled from what was billed as the president’s final campaign, Obama is gearing up for another national outreach that will likely determine the course of the economy, the markets and the lifestyle of consumers and businesses for years to come.
“He’s very much using popular results in a way that wasn’t available to him in 2011,” said Jared Bernstein, a former economics adviser to President Joseph Biden. “I think it’s sort of two-fold: He’s taking it to the people because, ‘a,’ not taking it to the people didn’t work and, ‘b,’ people are with him.”
Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republican leaders contend that by preserving their majority in the House, the GOP can rightfully claim as much of a popular mandate as Obama and Senate Democrats. But Obama – who won the popular vote by a margin of 50.5 percent to 47.9 percent -- begs to differ.
“If there’s one thing that I’m pretty confident about is the American people understood what they were getting when they gave me this incredible privilege of being in office for another four years,” Obama said during yesterday’s news conference. “They wanted compromise, they wanted action, but they also want to make sure middle class folks aren’t bearing the entire burden and sacrifice when it comes to some of these big challenges. And they expect that folks at the top are doing their fair share as well.”
“And that’s going to be my guiding principle during these negotiations, but more importantly during the next four years of my administration,” the president added.
A Washington Post-Pew Research study done shortly after the election shows that, should talks break down on avoiding the fiscal cliff, 53 percent are inclined to blame Republicans in Congress while only 29 percent single out Obama.
The White House is planning a series of fiscal cliff “campaign” events for the president over the next several weeks, as he continues to make his pitch to the country that only a “balanced” plan of deficit reduction involving spending cuts, entitlement reforms and changes to the tax code that force wealthier Americans to pick up a larger share of the cost is acceptable.
Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, told Politico that Obama this week “broadly discussed” going around the country to “communicate to people what the choice is here. He feels very strongly that it will be a continuation of what the election was all about.”
However, William Galston, a former senior policy adviser for President Bill Clinton, said that “It’s hard to know whether the White House has calculated the odds right,” and that Obama and his advisers may find it harder than they think to pressure House Republicans who are just coming off highly successful campaigns in mostly heavily Republican congressional districts.
Alongside public outreach, Obama has attempted to shore up alliances just as he did for the presidential re-election campaign. He met Tuesday morning with organized labor leaders who are already mobilizing their public outreach operations to generate support for the proposed tax increases. The challenge is whether he can expand that coalition beyond the Democratic core.