Obama Kabuki: The Budget and the Politics of Positioning

What's President Barack Obama up to in the big federal budget deficit/debt ceiling debate? After months of letting Vice President Joe Biden carry the ball, Obama has placed himself center stage in the midst of controversy, even as agreement seems to get farther away.

What is he really after? To solve the multi-faceted problem? Well, sure, that would be nice. But what he is really after is what all first-term presidents are after. A second term.

Obama, in my opinion, is engaged in what former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called political "kabuki." A stylized dramatic dance that draws attention while obscuring true purpose.

And what is his true purpose? To appeal to moderates by occupying the center and pushing the Republicans to the starboard side fringe.

Meanwhile, Obama is flipping out a lot of liberals and other folks on the left.

But why worry?

Obama probably realizes that he is free to posture in favor of big deficit reductions, and placing major entitlement cuts on the table, because the Republicans will never go for it, even though they say those are top priorities. Why won't they? Because they, thanks to their ideology, and their extraordinarily insistent hyper-partisan base, can't countenance the accompanying loophole closures and tax hikes for the rich. Even though the cuts in Obama's proposal dwarf the revenues. And even though the tax hikes would not be "recovery killers" occurring this year or next year.

House Speaker John Boehner, whose golf summit with Obama a few weeks ago provoked much comment, announced over the weekend that the big global deal he and Obama and others have been working on won't fly because it includes substantial tax hikes. So he is looking at a smaller, more short-term deal.

But Obama says he isn't. He wants the big deal. He says. What he especially wants is for fickle moderates and some independent voters, who say they want budget cuts and economic stimulus, to view him as their champion and the Republican right -- which calls the shots in the GOP in a way that the Democratic left does not in their party -- as their anathema.

Discussions continue. But in reality, the federal budget deficit has always been a less pressing issue than a state budget deficit -- with conservatives blithely pursuing unfunded wars and tax cuts and liberals expanding social programs -- because the feds are allowed to print money and run deficits and the states are not.

When did the Republicans start caring about the federal budget deficit and the debt ceiling? That's easy. January 20th, 2009.

But what really needs to get done soon? A deficit deal which sees big cuts to entitlement programs that Democrats can otherwise use next year to bludgeon Republicans wedded to Congressman Paul Ryan's ballyhooed budget? A deficit deal which sees tax hikes to disappoint the far right Republican base? A combination of the two?

Or raising the debt ceiling to avert an end to the sputtering global economic recovery?

With the national elections ramping up, clearly the latter.

If Obama succeeds in his positioning, he's looking at some good tidings. The leading Republican presidential candidates are locked in to the far right position on fiscal policy. But, despite their fealty to the no-tax mantra, they are, ironically, not raising all that much money.

Putative Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney raised just over $18 million in the second quarter. This is less than the $20 million recently expected for him, and less than half of the $40 to $50 million set early on as a goal by campaign fundraisers.

It is also less than the $20 million-plus that Romney raised during the same period in the 2008 campaign, when he was not the supposed frontrunner.

The total does not, however include some $12 million raised in unlimited amounts by a pro-Romney "SuperPAC" which cannot coordinate its activities with Romney's campaign. SuperPACs, an outgrowth of the infamous Citizens United decision, are like independent expenditure committees in California state elections.

Michele Bachmann, who just entered the race recently, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman, who also just entered the race recently, all appear to have raised in the $4 to $5 million range. This is a disappointment for Pawlenty, who has not impressed and was supposed to be a major contender.

Bachmann may have transferred funds from her congressional campaign account and the just announced Huntsman has injected some of his own funds, though how much remains unknown.

It would be amusing to attribute the Republicans' problems to the shaky state of the economy of late, but not accurate. An extensive recent survey from Northeastern University reveals that this is an historically low-quality economic recovery, one in which the fruits of a recovering economy have been unevenly shared. Far more has gone to corporate profit and wealthy individuals than to the middle and lower-income Americans.

But that's not so.

In contrast, Obama is said by insiders to have raised more than all the Republican candidates combined.

So if he can appeal to the center without hurting his base, he's in good shape. Well, as good a shape as any president beset by massive geopolitical crises (one or two of them of his own making) and a sputtering recovery since the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression can be, that is.