Power Play

Obama’s Rhetorical Trap

Feelings of moral superiority are expensive luxuries in politics. It feels so good to denounce and despise, right up until the moment you have to start making concessions.

And that’s where Democrats find themselves after weeks of calling Republicans “hostage takers” and “the most dangerous demagogic force in American politics since Joe McCarthy.”

Throughout the prelude to the current fiscal impasse, the only apparent division among Democrats was whether Republicans were evil or stupid, with consensus quickly returning when they agreed that “both” was probably the right answer.

President Obama, who negotiated again and again after losing the House three years ago, has declared that he is now beyond or above such grubby considerations as haggling over whether to increase the federal borrowing limit or whether there would be yet another emergency spending measure to keep the government open exactly as is.

The last budget for the federal government expired five years ago, so it is perhaps understandable that the new normal of cliff’s-edge appropriations may seem routine to the president, who has never signed a budget. But, even so, he surely recalls from his brief stint in the Senate how the budget process previously worked. Emergency funding bills are quite often dicey business, which is perhaps a fitting consequence of fiscal impropriety.

Obama’s base has roared with approval at his refusal to negotiate and to his giving public voice to what Democrats have long said in private: That Obama’s rivals are unworthy of engagement and that their ideas are beneath consideration. After his re-election, Obama laid out his plan to “break the fever” among Republicans by forcing painful choices onto the GOP and then doing business with the worthier (i.e. smaller, more agreeable) opposition that remains.

After a perfectly poor start to his second term, Obama is trying to get back on course for his seek and destroy mission. Accordingly, he has ramped up the rhetoric again, encouraging his subordinates and supporters to do the same. They have taken to the task with gusto.

Since American liberals tend to see government in its best light as a moral instrument – deliverer of social justice, ameliorator of human suffering, protector of a fragile environment – they often view the funding (or not funding) of government in moral terms. It is especially tempting for his supporters to give in to their impulse to attack. But now what? Obama’s risky gambit of the politics of partisan destruction doesn’t leave Democrats much running room in the current fight over debt and spending.

And having encouraged this moral absolutism with multiple refusals to negotiate, Obama now faces an unpleasant choice. He can deal with people his top communications aide branded “suicide bombers” and be seen as a heretic by his fellow believers or he can preside over a catastrophic failure.

His adamancy has driven Republicans together in desperation, settling on a strategy of slogging through a painful shutdown battle with Obama. They may not like how they got there, but they are now fighting for survival. Their strategy of jousting with Obama and Senate Democrats over what shuts down in a shutdown is buying time and increasing public pressure on Obama to get to the negotiating table, which is where he arrived Wednesday and whence he shall return again.

This is making liberals furious.

It might have sounded sound flaky or irrational to some when a California congressman screamed from the floor of the House that his fellow lawmakers are waging a “jihad” against Americans by refusing to fully fund the government until Obama consents to some compromise on his new health-insurance entitlement program. But if every dollar spent by the federal government is sacred, damming up the flow of those dollars would look like a religious war.

Obama may be serious about pushing through and jumping off this, the mother of all fiscal cliffs. But if he continues to flinch, he will have hell to pay explaining his reversal to his political supporters.


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.