Obama Picks a Fight to Define 2012 Election: Margaret Carlson

Sept. 16 (Bloomberg) -- At least the charade is over. For far too long, President Barack Obama clung to the notion that we can all get along in a bitterly divided capital and nation.

He’d come to look like a chump being rolled -- and rolled again -- by his Republican opposition. His most ardent supporters were losing faith as he sought to show independents what a reasonable fellow he is.

Last week, Obama dropped the demeanor of the Grand Compromiser and came out swinging in his address to a joint session of Congress. He kept his dukes up on his jobs tour, which he pointedly began in Richmond, Virginia, home of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. He told Congress, in effect, “Yeah, I’m going to pay for my $447 billion jobs bill by raising taxes on the well-to-do: Want to make something of it?”

Republicans won’t negotiate with Obama in good faith or bad. (Witness the debt-ceiling fight, during which they welcomed plummeting markets and financial chaos as preferable to political compromise.) After a muted response to Obama’s speech -- a moment of silence in which they perhaps contemplated Congress’ 15 percent approval rating -- Cantor and Speaker John Boehner both damned Obama’s proposal as a “tax increase on job creators.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the bill “a hodgepodge of retread ideas” (some of which had been embraced by Republicans until the moment Obama proposed them).

The Republican stand is clear: They will support no tax increases no matter what, with the exception of new levies on the poor to ensure that they have “some skin in the game,” as Republican Senator Dan Coats of Indiana memorably put it. Gaping loopholes for the rich, including the one that enables hedge fund billionaires to pay taxes at a fraction of the rate of middle-class workers, will be vigorously defended.

Obama’s Choice

Contrast, not compromise, is Obama’s new tack. Obama has now laid out the choice that he wants to define the 2012 election. On one side, a Republican Party committed to protecting corporate jets, Wall Street financiers and the outsize share of national private wealth -- more than one-third and growing larger -- held by the wealthiest 1 percent. On the other, a Democratic president committed to securing the livelihoods of teachers, construction workers, first responders and other pillars of a middle class under siege.

Even obstructionist Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina says the contrast puts Republicans in a bind. “If we vote for this plan, we’ll own the economy with the president, and he desperately needs someone else to blame it on,” DeMint said. “If we vote against it, he’s going to try to say Congress blocked his ability to create jobs.”

JPMorgan Chase predicts that Obama’s jobs bill would increase growth by 1.9 percent and create 1.5 million jobs. That doesn’t mean it will happen. Republicans are willing to risk a double-dip recession as they wait for the inauguration of President Romney or Perry, or a white knight yet to be named. “The people who sent us here,” Obama said in his speech to Congress, “don’t have the luxury of waiting 14 months” for help. In Columbus, Ohio, 3,500 people cheered when Obama said he could create jobs if other politicians stopped “worrying so much about their jobs.”

High unemployment is a death knell for incumbent presidents. Yet public mistrust of Republicans appears to be keeping Obama in the game. A Public Policy Polling survey taken just after Obama’s jobs speech found that Obama leads former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney by 49 percent to 45 percent.

Weak Opponents

His lead over Texas Governor Rick Perry has grown to 52-41 from 49-43 in August. The Republican presidential candidates are undoubtedly weak, a status confirmed by the continued calls for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to enter the fray. The question is whether they are weak enough to lose to a battered incumbent struggling against a historic high tide of joblessness.

This week, Democrats lost two special House elections, one in New York’s boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens to replace the tweeting Anthony Weiner, a seat Democrats had held for most of the past century, and the other in Nevada, where Republican Mark Amodei crushed Democrat Kate Marshall by 22 points. Obama, the most reasonable of men, appears to realize that he can’t bide his time while waiting to get even with his foes. He needs to get mad. And so he has.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Margaret Carlson in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at

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