News & Politics

Ready to Fight: Has Obama Finally Shaken Up Washington?

The proposals outlined in the president's fiery speech aren't new, but the administration appears to be getting serious about fighting for them.

On Monday, Barack Obama proffered a deficit reduction package that would complement his call last week for a new focus on jobs. The proposals, especially the president's endorsement of the “Buffett Principle” -- which holds that the richest Americans should pay the same share of their incomes as their secretaries do – appears to have fired up the Democratic base.

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“This is not class warfare—it's math," became the line of the day, and even Firedoglake, a site known for attacking Obama from the left, acknowledged that while he “spent the first 2 1/2 years of his presidency courting” pundits and blue dog Democrats, Obama now appears to be “on the right track.”

Yet the president didn't offer a lot of new proposals in the jobs package he presented last week, nor in the deficit reduction plan he offered on Monday. Rather, he struck a new tone, which is itself significant. As the New York Times put it, “Obama confirmed... that he had entered a new, more combative phase of his presidency.”

Substance aside, the proposals have already had a salutary effect, refocusing the attention of a media obsessed with process onto a devastating jobs crisis to which they'd given short shrift over the past two years. The president and the Democratic leadership in Congress “pivoted” from an almost singular focus on deficits to the problems plaguing the real economy, and the media has pivoted right along with them.

In April, the president gave a speech in which he called the public debt, "the greatest long-term threat to America’s national security.” Shortly afterward, a study conducted by the National Journal looked at how often the words "unemployment" and "deficit" appeared in major publications and concluded, “major U.S. newspapers have increasingly shifted their attention away from coverage of unemployment in recent months while greatly intensifying their focus on the deficit.” The analysis, wrote the Journal, “portrays a dramatically shifting landscape of coverage over the past two years, as the debate over how to fix the federal deficit has risen to prominence and the question of how to handle still-high unemployment has faded from the media's consciousness.”

But on September 8, Obama took to the podium and delivered an impassioned speech urging Congress to do something about the unemployment situation immediately and accusing those who would block a jobs bill of putting party before country. The proposals he offered resulted in a dramatic change in the media's focus. As Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism noted, “The troubled U.S. economy was the No. 1 story last week, and for the third week in a row, President Obama’s September 8 job creation speech and plan were the central themes in that economic coverage.” The economy accounted for 28 percent of the “news hole” the week Obama delivered his speech, and 20 percent last week.

The question of whether Obama has used his bully pulpit as effectively as he might have has been central to the often angry debate among progressives over the Obama presidency. Last month, psychologist Drew Westen penned a much-discussed op-ed in the New York Times accusing the administration of not doing enough to advance a genuinely progressive economic narrative. “The stories our leaders tell us matter,” he wrote, “probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred.”

Dismissing his thesis as “nonsense,” Jonathan Chait wrote in the New Republic that Westen was indulging “a liberal fantasy” that was “unusually fixated on the power of words.” In Westen's view, wrote Chait, “every known impediment to legislative progress -- special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion -- are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech.”

While Chait is certainly correct that a speech by the president can't move mountains – or entrenched public opinion – the shift in the news media's attention suggests that a speech certainly can refocus the public discourse.

And “tone” matters. In broad terms, Obama has been saying the same things for some time now: we need “shared sacrifice,” to include letting the Bush tax cuts on high earners expire and closing various tax loopholes; and a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction that includes both revenue increases and spending cuts. He's stressed the need to gradually reduce the deficit in order to avoid slowing down the economy at the worst time. For months he has hinted that various entitlement “reforms” would be on the table. The payroll tax holiday that he seeks to extend was first negotiated as part of the budget deal cut last fall. As were the extended unemployment benefits that he now wants to renew. Investing in infrastructure has been a theme since the 2008 campaign; he proposed creating an “infrastructure bank” in a September 2010 speech.

But while the nuts and bolts of his proposals aren't new, his approach to pushing them through Congress certainly is. While in the past Obama argued for a “balanced” approach to reducing the deficit, this week he went a step further, vowing to veto any bill that fiddles with Medicare without raising taxes on the wealthy. While in the past he laid out a broad vision of what he wanted and then left the heavy lifting to Democratic leaders in Congress, this time around Obama is out stumping for his proposals.

That new assertiveness is shifting the discourse around Obama's presidency. In a post that typifies the changing narrative, Greg Sargent of the Washington Post wrote that “the sense is unmistakable that a page has been turned, that the president is trying out an approach that’s fundamentally new. Commentators had constantly asked — in the awful Beltway cliche — how Obama would move to 'hit the reset button' on his presidency. We now have our answer. The reset button has been pressed.”

That “reset button” is a matter of process, which shapes how our political media – one that finds the arcana of public policy to be dull and hard to explain to audiences – views the world around them. None of the proposals are new, and according to the pollsters, almost all of them are quite popular among majorities of Americans. But while a short time ago the prevailing wisdom held that Obama was risking his base by getting rolled by the GOP, now the conventional wisdom is gelling around the narrative that Obama has come out strong and is willing to fight.

And it's important to understand that these narratives represent a loop: the prevalent discourse influences public opinion, politicians read the polls and echo the public's mood, which in turn influences how the Beltway media report our public debates. The president can't control the discourse, but it's pretty clear that he can influence what the topic of the day will be.

That's why this new tone represents a significant shift regardless of the fact that the president's actual proposals do not. For the past year, the media have advanced a narrative that Obama is a "weak president," too willing to negotiate away his principles, and that has impacted the public's view of the administration. An August Pew Poll found that “Americans continue to have positive personal impressions of Barack Obama along most dimensions,” but at the same time, “evaluations of Obama’s leadership have dropped off.” Only about half of those polled saw him as a “strong leader.” And by a 37-25 margin, respondents wanted to see the president “challenge the GOP” more frequently; Democrats more than others, but it was a sentiment shared by a 36-30 margin among independents.

The central point of contention around all of these proposals is that they cut the deficit in part by raising some new revenues. Predictably, those proposals have elicited howls of "class warfare!" from the Right, but according to Gallup, 70 percent of the public favors “increasing taxes on some corporations by eliminating certain tax deductions” – even 53 percent of Republican voters favor it – and two-thirds of respondents said they approved of raising taxes on high earners.

With the political winds at his back – and not for the first time – Obama now seems ready to fight. As the New York Times put it, the administration has set up “a politically charged choice for anti-tax Republicans — protect the most affluent or compromise to attack deficits,” and is “confident in the answers most voters would make.” Democrats and independents alike have perceived Obama as someone who is not confident enough of those answers. With unemployment likely to remain over 8 percent next November, the next year will tell us how much the appearance of strength impacts the mood of the electorate.