No Matter What He Does, Obama Will Look Weak on the Deficit

Voters agree with the president's plan to tax the rich, but if he fails to deliver, he'll risk losing the confidence of his base

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When it comes to deficit politics, President Obama doesn't have a policy problem -- he has an image problem.

His new deficit plan should be popular with voters. On Monday, the president suggested taxing corporations and the rich to the tune of $1.5 trillion over 10 years, a revenue hike achieved by limiting deductions for America's top incomes and closing some corporate loopholes. He's fought this battle with Republicans twice before, and both times polling showed his ideas to be well received.

In December, 62 percent supported his plan to let the high-income Bush tax cuts expire, according to CNN. In July, as the U.S. debt limit was about to expire, CNN found that 73 percent supported raising taxes on incomes over $250,000.

Despite all that public backing, Obama probably won't get his way. Republicans control the House of Representatives, and House Speaker John Boehner and others have steadfastly refused to approve any tax increase of any kind, warning that such a move would damage job creation as the national unemployment rate hovers at 9.1 percent.

Obama isn't trying to make a deal with Republicans, New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait suggests. The president is trying to make his opinion known. In his speech on Monday, Obama did not seek the middle ground he and Republicans reached in December, when they compromised over the Bush tax cuts, although that compromise boosted his approval ratings. Instead, he offered an opening salvo that clarified his own stance and might force Republicans to offer concessions of their own, if the two sides are to meet in the middle.

In theory, this strategy should work in Obama's favor, giving him another opportunity to hammer the GOP and exploit its apparent disagreement with the public majority. Strategists have warned that in 2012, amid a bad economy and low approval ratings, Obama will have to frame his re-election campaign as a choice between future directions for the country, selling his policy ideals rather than his economic achievements. According to that logic, he was wise to come out swinging on Monday.

But Obama took a political risk by doing so. If he doesn't get his way, he'll look weak -- a problem that has plagued him among the independent and Democratic voters he'll need in 2012.

Independents and Democrats have lost faith in Obama as a "strong leader" who is "able to get things done, according to an Aug. 17-21 survey by the Pew Research Center:

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At the same time, independents and Democrats said they wanted Obama to stand up to the GOP more forcefully:

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By demonizing Republicans on taxes on Monday, Obama did challenge them. But if he fails to pass any tax increases in Congress, he may look weak anyway -- and voters may be left with the impression that he didn't challenge the GOP forcefully enough.

After all, Obama offered the same challenge to Republicans in July and August. He delivered the same lines about corporate tax breaks, jets, and the wealthy paying their share. He painted Republican lawmakers as defenders of upper-class privilege and economic unfairness. And, according to Pew, those challenges earned him an impression of weakness and left his voting base wishing he'd hit the GOP harder.

Aiming for compromise worked for Obama in December. He did his share of posturing, but with an across-the-board tax "hike" looming as a more serious consequence of failure in the Bush-tax-cut negotiations, Obama came away looking like the adult in the room. His numbers reflected it; the president enjoyed a brief approval renaissance, with his approval/disapproval differential staying at +6 through January.

The current round in the deficit debate could last until late December. The congressional "supercommittee" must find $1.5 trillion in savings by Nov. 23, otherwise $1.2 trillion in preordained cuts will be triggered. Until then, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner will mount their respective soapboxes. If the supercommittee agrees on something, Congress will have to vote on it by Dec. 23, and Obama must decide whether or not to sign it.

It's tough to know how Obama will look at the end of the fight. At the end of it, we'll probably find out whether Democrats and independents will settle for presidential toughness, in lieu of congressional assent.

Image credit: Jason Reed/Reuters