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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama’s Speech and Democratic Discontents

Reactions to the president’s “budget speech” today are slowly rolling in, but based on how he tackled the basic issues, I think we can expect two fundamental positions from Democratic opinion-leaders.
Some progressives believe any talk about budget deficits being a paramount issue or spending cuts being necessary concedes crucial ground to Republicans. Others–often the same people–think any talk of a “budget deal” with Republicans concedes equally crucial ground, because (a) GOP intransigence will inevitably make any deal a victory for their cause, no matter what Republicans say about it publicly, and (b) any gestures of bipartisanship make both parties seem equally responsible for failures to reach agreement, which disguises GOP extremism
To these folk, Obama’s speech probably represented a continuation of a deeply flawed strategy, albeit not so bad as the full-throated endorsement of the Bowles-Simpson recommendations that some had feared.
Other progressives think genuine public concern (not to mention elite concern) over deficits is now significant enough that it cannot be ignored, and that the persuadable element of the public also wants bipartisan action with visible participation by the president, which means regular gestures of bipartisanship are valuable if only to expose Republican extremism.
For this faction, which views deficit-talk and bipartisanship-talk as a strategic necessity, Obama’s speech will probably be viewed as quite good, particularly since most of it was devoted to an attack, explicit and implicit, on the GOP “narrative” of the deficit problem and its recommendations for dealing with it.
Without question, the president provided a brisk but pointed critique of Paul Ryan’s budget proposals that highlighted their radical intent–not just in the context of public opinion but of American history–and deceptive nature. He also, however briefly, introduced a discussion of income inequality as background to his call for “shared sacrifice” and his resistance to Ryan’s demand for still more tax cuts for the wealthy. These are themes progressives have been begging him to raise.
All in all, the speech will probably reassure those progressives who hadn’t already despaired of Obama’s budget strategy. And it’s worth noting that this cohort of Democrats remains dominant among the rank-and-file, if not elites. The latest Gallup weekly breakdown of presidential approval ratings showed 80% of self-identified “liberal Democrats” approving of his job performance. For the record, that’s a bit better than Bill Clinton’s 76% approval rating among Democrats as a whole at this point in 1995.

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