Power Play

Obama touts clout in bid to calm anxious Dems

“I’m not concerned about their opinions. Very few of them, by the way, are lawyers, much less constitutional lawyers.”

-- President Obama talking to the New York Times about those in Congress who believe he is overstepping his bounds by refusing to enforce parts of his 2010 health law at the behest of large businesses.

Why is President Obama so eager to tout his executive authority and one-man policy clout when it comes to the economy while simultaneously talking down said economy?

Heading into the coming clash over debt and spending, Obama and House Republicans want you to know that they both think the economy stinks. A lot.

The only question in Washington now is who’s to blame for the odor.

Since there is a mix of good and bad news on the economy, one might expect that we would hear an argument from someone that we need to maintain or accelerate the current course. But since the motley and somewhat scrofulous American economy goes hardest against the middle class, there’s not much sense in doing as the president formerly did and emphasizing the progress already made.

"Alive," as in “General Motors is alive…,” isn’t cutting it anymore. And if the president wants to cement his legacy (or a legacy more than his current one: a demographically different president who spent his two terms passing and then defending an unpopular heath law) he will have to actually win the argument and convince people of the need for higher taxes and more government spending.

And to do that, Obama has to explain the need. Which means talking down his own economy. So what the president does is say that his 2009 stimulus spending package and other outlays helped end a short-term spiral and suggest that his two other big laws, the aforementioned health law and new bank regulations, will help shape a “sustainable” economy in the future.

Obama says that if Republicans had been willing to increase taxes and spending more than they did in the previous five years, the country would be farther down the road to economic security.

When we see headlines like “4 in 5 in USA face near-poverty, no work” or hear that AARP is trying to recruit its members to sign up for food stamps, we understand why the president’s message about long-term economic insecurity finds a ready audience. While conservatives see these stories as evidence of a welfare state run amok, liberals and those in marginal economic groups are likely to see them as evidence of the need for more federal spending.

Obama Democrats argue that the collapsing core of the American economy and increasing reliance on welfare programs is exactly why this would be very bad to maintain current caps on automatic increases to federal spending, known in Washington as “sequestration” or any other limits on spending. By their thinking, elevated federal spending, combined with help from Uncle Ben at the Federal Reserve, is the only thing keeping the economy from going back down the chute.

Republicans, meanwhile, argue that the Obama effort to create “sustainability” is itself unsustainable. They blame higher taxes, deficit spending and expensive new regulations for not only stifling the recovery but further corroding the nation’s economic core. When Obama says that the country is transitioning to a new economy, conservatives agree. They just think that the transition is to a necrotic private sector and a nation of cat-food connoisseurs.


So heading into a massive battle over debt and spending, scheduled to begin against the backdrop of the opening of Obama’s new health-insurance entitlement program, Obama is determined to not let the Republicans cut anything. Republicans are determined to not let Obama spend or tax any more.

And in all likelihood, they’re both right. Obama’s round of attacks and campaigning ahead of the negotiations suggests he isn’t looking to make any concessions to the GOP. And the very fact that Republicans are debating whether to make the debt limit increase contingent on a delay of Obamacare – something the president would surely never allow – hints at the reality in Washington: We will again go to the brink and again continue to amble along it.

The antagonistic hybrid economics of the Obama era -- tax hikes but spending caps, more regulations but no stimulus subsidies – seem certain to continue. And what does that foretell for the next year? As the Obama bundlers at Google might say: Garbage in, garbage out.

But the president still talks up his executive clout, placing himself on the hook for the problems. Recall that last year the president said “we can’t wait” and then proceeded to show not the expanse of executive power but rather its limits.

It can’t just be what his conservative critics claim that this is a narcissistic enterprise. Yes, as his New York Times interview shows, he has Gingrichian levels of intellectual self-regard. But there’s a practical consideration here. We’ll likely see the answer Wednesday when Obama goes to the Hill to try to corral anxious Democrats.

The president wants a unified blue team ahead of the big budget fight and needs a way to convince them to stay with him as they face difficult re-election cycles. Getting red-state Democrats geared up for another round of brinksmanship for the sake of breaking the back of the GOP is not easy task. With the president’s popularity slumping and scandals stills sapping his strength, Obama isn’t offering much to keep his fellow Democrats in line.

But if he can promise to use and expand his power – as he did with the decision to unilaterally delay an economically damaging provision of his health law – in ways to help the economy ahead of midterms, he might convince some Democrats to go cliff jumping with him one more time.

Executives can be expected to love expanded executive authority. But for Obama, creating at least the appearance of awesome economic powers has real-time consequences. There’s a chance Democrats will take a chance on a president with autocratic tendencies, but none that they would risk their re-elections for a lame duck.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET  at  http:live.foxnews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.