The Corner

President Obama’s Puzzling Political Strategy for After the Midterms

Richard Wolffe reports:

The White House plans to test Republicans’ unity and political resolve on three controversial issues: repealing the Bush tax cuts, implementing the deficit commission’s findings, and pushing immigration reform. Obama’s team says that these issues will make for good policy—and good politics, forcing Republicans elected in swing districts to choose between placating Democrats and independents and risking a possible Tea Party challenge in 2012.

The White House believes immigration reform may be the toughest test for the GOP—even tougher than tackling the deficit. “This will separate the reasonable Republicans from the pack running for president,” said one senior Obama aide.

I find this truly odd. I know from conversations with congressional staffers (whom I don’t believe to be spinning or lying) that Republicans in Congress are ready to have vigorous debates on all of these issues, and expect to win those debates politically and philosophically, even if their lack of numbers in the Senate and/or the president’s veto pen prevent them from enacting all or even most of the legislation they want. Question: Have you seen any Republicans shy away from a full-throated defense of extending, at least temporarily, all of the Bush tax cuts? I haven’t — but I’ve seen a few Democrats who have shied away from the president’s position, including some pretty important ones who will still be in office in January. Maybe the officials who talked to Wolffe got their papers mixed up: Item One reads like it comes from a plan to test the Democrats’ unity and political resolve.

On Item Two, I agree with Jon Chait, who writes: “If [the deficit commission] puts out any plan, it will be an unpopular mix of spending cuts and tax hikes. It’s not something you dare the opposition to vote against.” Republicans will present their own vision of how to bring the budget into balance, and it will probably include some of the commission’s recommendations and won’t include others. The biggest spending fights next year will be about overall spending levels for next year, and while I don’t expect a government shutdown, I do think the GOP will come forward with a much lower baseline than the president is comfortable with. Republicans can keep the government running with short-term continuing resolutions and still force the president to veto a lot of spending reductions, making him look like a guy whose only real solution for balancing the budget is to raise taxes. If you are a Republican political strategist with an eye toward 2012, then that is exactly where you want your Democratic opponent: giving you plenty of ways to make the “tax and spend” label stick. So Item Two doesn’t seem like great politics for the president either.

As for Item Three… well, I don’t follow immigration politics closely, but it seems to me that the window on the kind of reform Obama wants to do is closing after this year. The Senate will look a lot more like it did in 2007, when the last attempt at immigration reform failed. The House will almost certainly be more conservative. The Obama administration actually believes this will be “the toughest test for the GOP,” but I don’t see it. I have talked to quite a few Republican members who are fired up to have this fight, and few who are eager to work with Democrats on anything except Operation Enduring Freedom and maybe GSE reform. Will the president have the numbers to move the kind of bill he wants to move? I guess we’ll know more on November 3.

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