• Marc Johnson

Go Big or Go Home


The president might start by remembering that there are three things in politics that can be enormously powerful, but are almost always vastly underrated particularly by risk averse officeholders. The three are acting against type, the element of surprise and the importance of timing.

Mr. Obama could grab on to all three tactics in the wake of the Republican disaster over the federal government shut down and the close encounter of the weird kind with the debt ceiling. The big three could help salvage his second term.

First is timing. The president must have woke up this morning and smiled while thinking that Sen. Ted Cruz, the gift that keeps on giving, is in the United States Senate. Cruz’s Tea Party-fueled crusade to defund Obamacare flamed out like a shooting star over west Texas and left the president with a stronger hand and a united Democratic Party. Sen. Cruz is more popular than ever with a vastly unpopular movement, while Congressional Republicans remain badly divided and without a coherent domestic agenda. The timing, therefore, is right for Mr. Obama to Go Big with a budget, revenue and reform proposal.

Next, let’s consider surprise. During so much of his presidency Mr. Obama has been content, even comfortable, letting Congress take the lead on big things. He did it with his signature Affordable Care Act (ACA) and completely lost control of the political message, a problem that he has never again been able to get in front of. Nancy Pelosi became the face of health care reform and the anti-Obama crowd skillfully framed the issue as a socialist, big government, job killing takeover of health care. Now, during the brief breathing spell post-shut down, the country and the GOP fully expect Obama to sit back and leave the avoidance of the next shut down and the next default dodge to a bunch of members of Congress who are completely focused on the next election. This is the old approach of trying the same thing over and over and hoping for different results. It’s insanity.

Surprise would be for Mr. Obama to lay out in a series of speeches, town hall meetings, interviews and news conferences a detailed plan to get budget/revenue and entitlement reform in place. Timing could meet surprise.

Finally, it’s time for the president to go against type. History may well record that the single worst decision of the president’s tenure was to turn his back on the Bowles -Simpson bi-partisan “grand bargain” to fix the budget, revenues and entitlements for a decade or more, while starting to reduce the national debt. Of course, Mr. Obama tried to make The Big Deal with House Speaker John Boehner and failed, but he also quietly walked away from Bowles-Simpson when he should have clutched the framework. Remember that he created The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and the co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson developed a real plan that gained bi-partisan Congressional support.

The timing, surprise factor and going against type, in this case embracing some GOP needs and holding off the left wing of of his own party, make great second term sense. Political commentator Andrew Sullivan has the same idea, as he has written:

“If the GOP were a genuinely conservative party, actually interested in long-term government solvency and reform within our current system of government, they would jump at this. They could claim to have reduced tax rates, even if the net result were higher taxes. And the brutal fact is that, given simply our demographics, higher taxes are going to be necessary if we are to avoid gutting our commitments to the seniors of tomorrow. They could concede that and climb down from this impossibly long limb they have constructed for themselves.

“I’ve long favored a Grand Bargain,” Sullivan continues, “but recognize its huge political liabilities without the leadership of both parties genuinely wanting to get there. But for Obama, it seems to me, re-stating such a possibility and embracing it more than he has ever done, is a win-win.”

For a politician with such obvious rhetoric gifts, Mr. Obama has a strange inability to state the most obvious things in simple, direct and understandable terms.

In the wake of the huge GOP meltdown, as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has written, Mr. Obama “spoke abstractly about ‘the long-term obligations that we have around things like Medicare and Social Security.’ He was similarly elliptical in saying he wants ‘a budget that cuts out the things that we don’t need, closes corporate tax loopholes that don’t help create jobs, and frees up resources for the things that do help us grow, like education and infrastructure and research.’

“Laudable ideas all,” Milbank says, but timidly said and lacking in real-world details. “Timidity and ambiguity in the past have not worked for Obama. The way to break down a wall of Republican opposition is to do what he did the past two weeks: stake out a clear position and stick to it. A plan for a tax-code overhaul? A Democratic solution to Medicare’s woes? As in the budget and debt fights, the policy is less important than the president’s ability to frame a simple message and repeat it with mind-numbing regularity.” Exactly.

Are there risks involved? Sure, but what does Mr. Obama really want out of the rest of his second term? Months and months of partisan haggling over non-issues? He should embrace the risk and put it all out on the table, otherwise why be president?

I suspect if one the smart pollsters measuring the declining standing of Sen. Cruz and the Tea Party’s approach to non-governance would ask one additional question they would find that the vast majority of Americans are ready – in fact clamoring for – real straight talk about specific policies that end the politics of going to the budget brink every few months.

The question I’d like to see asked in a national poll is pretty simple: “If President Obama proposed a specific plan to reduce long-term federal spending, reduce tax exemptions and lower tax rates, while ensuring the long-term viability of Social Security and Medicare would you be in favor?”

I’m betting the overwhelming answer would be YES. Timing, Surprise and Acting Against Type = a political strategy. That strategy is – Go Big.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson