Having released the video launching his reelection last week, President Obama gave what amounted to the first speech of the 2012 campaign this morning with his address on deficit reduction. It gratified some liberals who had been despairing over Obama’s reluctance to get in there and fight. Michael Tomasky thought the speech offered “astonishingly direct stuff, coming from the man who likes to lay back,” while Jonathan Cohn welcomed “a clear, unambiguous, morally grounded defense of the welfare state … the speech I wanted to hear.” Such reactions indicate that a solution to one of Obama’s political problems — the disaffection of his political base — is within reach.
But it won’t be easy. You campaign in poetry and govern in prose, as Mario Cuomo used to say, but the poetry and prose have to be aligned. Will his base remember this speech fondly or contemptuously after this year’s budget negotiations have produced an outcome? “I don’t expect the details in any final agreement to look exactly like the approach I laid out today,” Obama said in his address. That may not play so well with the base. Paul Krugman needed all of two hours to declare, “I could live with [Obama’s proposal] as an end result. If this becomes the left pole, and the center is halfway between this and [Rep. Paul] Ryan, then no — better to pursue the zero option of just doing nothing and letting the Bush tax cuts as a whole expire.”
The extraordinarily favorable political circumstances of 2008 let Obama have it both ways: He enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the Democratic base while doing well with independent swing voters. The former want passionate commitment to the liberal project, the latter care about tangible results and political processes in Washington that edify rather than embarrass the citizenry.
In 2012, Obama won’t be so lucky. Democrats lost the House and nearly lost the Senate two years after their across-the-board victory in 2008 because the base was demoralized and didn’t turn out like it had, and because independents swung — hard — to the GOP. Today’s speech showed him trying to mend both fences. After all the rhetoric appealing to the Democratic base, Obama closed by quoting a letter from a citizen who perfectly distilled the swing-voter worldview: “I believe that somewhere lost in this quagmire of petty bickering on every news station, the ‘American Dream’ is still alive.”
President Obama often tries to present himself as the captain of the red team and the umpire of the game — both in the contest and above it, trying to be the adult in the room. Speeches lend themselves to such ambiguity; tax increases and budget cuts don’t. To govern is to choose, John Kennedy said. Barack Obama can’t navigate the coming election season without overcoming his reluctance to do both.