President Obama, for the first time in memory, is not going to ignore August. Augusts haven't been kind to Obama in the past. But this time around it appears he's going to proactively go on the offensive for the month, rather than sitting on the sidelines during what is now known as "town hall season." How successful he will be in this effort remains to be seen, but it is at least refreshing to see him make the attempt.
Augusts have traditionally been long and languid on the political scene. Congress scarpers off to avoid the Washington miasmic heat, and up until the advent of YouTube, not much political news was ever made during this vacation lull. Then came the Tea Party Era, where videos of people screaming at their elected representatives became high entertainment. Politicians were caught rather flat-footed, since these "chat with the folks back in the home district" events had always been so low-key and low-risk. If some lunatic interrupted an event by ranting about his pet conspiracy theories, it might be a one-day story in the local newspaper -- but it certainly wouldn't even rate the front page of the Podunk Gazette, much less national airtime.
That all changed during the healthcare reform debate. The Tea Partiers had been riding a wave of popular attention, and now pretty much everyone had a video-capable cell phone to record even the most backwoods town halls in America. The national media gleefully went along for the ride, since August traditionally produced so little political news that they had nothing at all to compete with the videos of the ranters and ravers. Since that time, the politicians have become more savvy and they are taking these events a lot more seriously (those that haven't just cancelled all such events in pre-emptive retaliation). What this has meant is a whole month where the fringiest of the fringe are awarded center stage in our national political debate. Since the Republican Party has moved so far fringewards anyway, it was the party poised to actually benefit from airing their own fringe voices.
President Obama has, until now, mostly remained aloof during this period. To his detriment, as measured by public opinion polling. In both 2009 and 2010, Obama's job approval numbers took the biggest one-month hit in August that they would for the entire year. In 2011, Obama's worst three months were (in order): June, August, July. He broke the trend in the election year of 2012, while campaign season was underway. This year, it appears he's going to try something different, by launching a major political offensive on the economy and helping the middle class. His poll numbers so far this year have been sliding down from his post-election "second honeymoon," but they've reached dangerously low levels even before August begins. Perhaps this has something to do with his newfound boldness, or perhaps that's just too cynical. Either way, Obama doesn't have a lot to lose at this point in making the attempt to change the national political conversation.
The town hall season this year had been shaping up to be a big discussion (complete with extreme views being aired by a public not too concerned about political correctness) on immigration reform. This may still happen on schedule, given the fact that the most contentious town hall scenes happen during the "question and answer" period, and the crowd is going to ask what the crowd is going to ask -- no matter what else is happening in the political world. Republicans in the House punted working on immigration until after the August break, which puts the issue front and center for a lot of their base. Fears that bipartisanship might somehow break out in the House to pass the bipartisan Senate bill are the motivating factor for the Republican base. Rightwing talk radio has been whipping the issue up for months, and there are some people out there who are absolutely enraged that anything short of "round up the 11 million, ship them home tomorrow" is even under consideration. These voices will likely be heard during town hall season, no matter what Obama's talking about.
For the rest of the public, the contrast may be stark. Images of Republican House members trying to assuage anti-immigration reform types will be competing with Obama giving speeches about helping the middle class and improving the economy. The difference between the two types of image will be clear to all. Seen solely through the lens of politics, Obama has the chance to define both himself and his opponents and reap obvious political benefits by doing so.
Crass politics aside, however, Obama is setting himself up on the policy side of things very nicely as well. Because while immigration reform will be an issue for the House when they get back, there are two other looming issues which must be dealt with very soon. Immigration doesn't have any sort of hard-and-fast deadline, but the federal budget and the debt ceiling do. Both must be dealt with in September, in some fashion or another. This giant budget battle looms, which is why Obama has launched his speaking tour on the subject of the economy. He is preparing the ground for the September struggles.
So far, Obama has moved the debate to things he wants to talk about, although both the media and his opponents took the bait of Obama's "phony scandals" line and have mostly avoided direct discussion of the real economic theme of Obama's speeches. What, after all, is the Republican response to Obama's calls for Congress to get the job done and produce a budget he can sign?
Republicans were going to spend August talking up their own theme of "Fighting Washington." Obama has undercut this theme in a big way already -- by pointing out that anyone in Congress is not just part of Washington, but in fact they have a job description and they are failing miserably at doing the tasks we the people pay them to do. The federal budget is a yearly affair, it is not surprising or unique. The House has passed a budget document, and so has the Senate. But Republicans are refusing to even form a conference committee to work out a compromise, because "compromise" is an ugly and evil concept to their base. Specifically on the debt ceiling, some Republicans are already threatening to take the entire American economy hostage, once again, if they don't get every single item on their wish list from Democrats and the president. This is nothing new, really.
What is new, however, is that President Obama is fighting back, and he's doing so before Republicans have really even entered the ring. Some Republicans have begun to pivot from "Fighting Washington" to what I have decided to call the "Laurel And Hardy Defense." For those not up on classic comedy routines, the bombastic Ollie Hardy would, after some monumental screwup of his own making, turn to his hapless partner Stan Laurel and say with exasperation: "Now look what you've made me do!" This is precisely the line that some Republicans are now using to describe their own behavior versus the president's. Republicans hold the economy hostage and refuse to budge one inch in budget negotiations, and because Obama simply is not going to sign any bill which consists solely of Republican ideas, the congressional Republicans will take the economy over the cliff rather than compromise. As we enter free fall after either a government shutdown (if the budget isn't worked out) or the default of America's creditworthiness (if the debt ceiling isn't resolved), Republicans will smugly say: "Now look what Obama's made us do!" Or, perhaps (also from Laurel and Hardy): "Here's another fine mess Obama's gotten us into."
This showdown was likely always going to happen in this fashion. Anyone who has seen the modus operandi of the Republicans for the past two or three years should really not be surprised at how the upcoming budget fight is being set up. The only difference, really, is who will be playing offense and who will be playing defense. In previous years, Democrats have clung to the hope that Republicans would sooner or later realize that compromise was necessary, and by doing so they would be fairly muted in their public statements, especially about their opposition. Republicans, knowing in advance that they were in no mood to compromise, held no such illusions and felt free to characterize their opponents however they wished in public statements.
This time around, however, Obama has entered the field first. And Obama is attacking Congress and their refusal to do their jobs, pre-empting the Republicans' complaints about "Washington" before they can even get started. Because the House Republicans refused to act before August, they will face the heavy distraction of discussing immigration during their town halls. Democrats can lay out their case to the public in the meantime, which consists of their usual bargaining position: "We can compromise on many things, but there are a few deal-breakers which we will not even consider." This will be contrasted with the Republicans' position of: "We're not going to compromise on anything, we're going to fight battles we've repeatedly lost in the past all over again, and unless Obama signs on to the entire Republican list of demands, we will destroy the American economy for political reasons."
Now, I'm not saying that this is going to be a slam dunk for Obama. The media's idiotic insistence on "false equivalency" will lead them to attempt to paint both sides as being equally bad in the debate. So that's a headwind Obama and the Democrats face. But this time around, Obama is fighting back first -- he is attempting to start the conversation on his terms, before his opponents have even warmed up. And this time around, there are plenty of past examples of Republican brinksmanship to remind the public who is threatening to take the economy hostage, and who is trying to get something done for the American people and the middle class. So Obama's got a chance of building support for his positions this year -- a chance that hasn't really existed in years past. The difference is Obama seems to be eagerly charging into August, and (for once) taking the initiative and playing offense instead of defense. We'll see, in upcoming weeks, whether this strategy pays off for President Obama or not. But it certainly is refreshing to see him get out there and fight, this early in the game. Because it gives him a much better chance of winning the debate with the American people than in years past, when he all but ignored the month of August.
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